Visionary architecture in the United States is usually associated with eccentric outsiders, but a residence situated in a prosperous Hartford, Connecticut, neighborhood is a notable exception. This pine-board dwelling, 86 feet wide, presents the appearance of a 16th-century Venetian neo-Palladian villa—but it is only 18 feet deep. Its two-story facade is adorned with false windows, historically inaccurate Ionic columns, and tall but shallow pilasters. Set far back from the street behind an expansive lawn, the structure is a gloriously fake pastiche, asserting itself frankly as a theatrical fantasy.
This extraordinary house, built in 1930, is the largest object in the collection of Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, and was the home of A. Everett “Chick” Austin Jr., the Atheneum’s director from 1927 to 1944. Austin designed the facade and the interiors, which range in style from Venetian Baroque to Bauhaus Modernism.
Austin’s fantasy unrolls in phases as one opens the front door. In the entry hall, as a prelude to the first-floor visual operetta, a 17th-century life-size polychrome statue of Saint Luke flies above a staircase spiraling upward for two stories toward an illuminated dome. To the right is a music room adorned with Venetian painted-silk panels. Passing through it, the visitor encounters exuberantly carved 18th-century wooden doors that herald the next scene, a living room with walls covered by 18th-century seascapes and harbor scenes in the manner of Claude Lorrain.
The space illustrates Austin’s command of scale versus size: although the room is only 18 by 22 feet, its 11-foot ceiling, the ocean scenery on the walls, and low-backed antique Italian furniture support the illusion of a grand salon. In the dining room, where walls are paneled from floor to ceiling in blue-green silk brocatelle, Austin installed a carved Rococo bed niche with similar effect. Placed at one end of the room, the Bavarian carving acts as a proscenium for a tiny stage. Here Austin juxtaposed a slim, lavishly gilded Nymphenburg console table and a gold-framed portrait once attributed to John Singleton Copley, fashioning a tableau apparently from another world.
Beginning in 1998, nearly all of the rooms upstairs and down, painted in unique colors that Austin invented, were meticulously restored. In 1994 the house was designated a National Historic Landmark, and it is now open for tours by appointment.
The house is a remarkable harbinger of early postmodern architectural practice, but it is even more intriguing as a visual analogue for the achievements of its charismatic creator. Austin remains a shadowy figure, despite his unparalleled accomplishments. Born in 1900 to a wealthy Boston family, he was educated at Harvard, where he studied with Fogg Art Museum director Edward W. Forbes and attended assistant director Paul J. Sachs’s legendary class on art-museum collecting and administration. In 1927 Forbes successfully recommended the 26-year-old Austin over his colleague, future Museum of Modern Art director Alfred Barr, for the directorship of the Atheneum. Although Austin preferred male lovers at Harvard and later had male partners, he fortified his position in Hartford in 1929 by marrying Helen Goodwin, niece of the Atheneum’s board chairman.
Beginning in 1928, Austin presented several exhibitions of paintings by major modernists years before comparable shows appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1931 he organized the first Surrealist exhibition in a U.S. museum, and in 1934 he mounted the country’s first comprehensive Picasso exhibition, five years before MoMA’s large Picasso show. He acquired scores of artworks by modern artists, ranging from Degas to Dalí in the 1930s and early ’40s, and in 1934 supervised the construction of the museum’s Avery Memorial wing, the country’s first International Style gallery, five years before the completion of MoMA’s International Style facility.
“You did everything sooner and more brilliantly than any of us,” Alfred Barr conceded to Austin in 1944.
As his domestic environment suggests, Austin’s tastes and expertise were not circumscribed by modernism. In 1930 he presented the first comprehensive exhibition of Baroque painting in the United States, and he later acquired masterworks for the Atheneum by Claude, Piero di Cosimo, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Louis Le Nain, and Bernardo Strozzi, as well as the first Caravaggio painting purchased by a U.S. museum.
Austin also included architecture, design, photography, and film in the museum’s programming—again, before related developments at MoMA. A member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, he performed magic shows in the museum and staged elaborate parties, such as the 1936 Paper Ball, a parody of the Bauhaus Metal Party, featuring fantastic paper costumes designed by Alexander Calder. In the 1930s and early ’40s, in the words of the architect Philip Johnson, Austin transformed Hartford into “the navel of the world.”
Although he remained married and a devoted father to his two children, Austin’s uninhibited lifestyle as well as his informal approach to management, not to mention his daring exhibitions, ultimately provoked the Atheneum trustees to fire him in 1945.
In 1947 Austin became the director of the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, which had fallen into decay. He not only restored it and built what is regarded as the finest collection of Baroque paintings in the United States, he initiated the first-ever circus museum on the grounds.
Today Austin’s connoisseurship and enthusiasm for performance in museum settings have attracted the attention of a new generation of curators. Their challenge, to cite Thomson, is to follow a mentor who “was never afraid to do what he wanted to do, and what he wanted to do was make art live and enrich everybody’s life.
“He was, in the full sense of the word, irresistible.”
Patricia Failing is professor emeritus of art history at the University of Washington in Seattle and an ARTnews contributing editor.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 74 under the title “Baroque, Bavarian, and Bauhaus.”