Updated: Sep 11, 2020
From 1951 to 1964, Abigail Sturges lived at Carniola, the house at Byrcliffe designed and briefly lived in by artist Bolton Brown, that tragically burned down in the 1960s. In conjunction with my two-part blog on Brown, I asked Abigail to share some of her memories of Carniola. Abigail has had a long and successful career as a book and catalogue designer. She has designed publications for Doubleday, the Museum of Modern Art, Thomas Y. Crowell, the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, Rizzoli, and arts institutions in Woodstock, among other places. Abigail designed the catalogue for the Zulma Steele exhibition which is now on view at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts.
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Casa Carniola, 1905
Gelatin silver print
The Winterthur Library:
Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera
Carniola was built by Bolton Brown in the early years of the 20th century, and the French camp for children took over in the 40s and 50s. They used it as their winter quarters, even though it had no heat. In the summer they moved to the Villetta. Also, the French camp seemed to take artist kids. Austin Mecklem’s daughters Pixie and Sallie were part of that, The parents needed serious time to paint. The kids loved it. The house had nine bedrooms, each easily sleeping two to a room, three bathrooms, a huge living room and a skylit central room that could once have been an artist's studio. We had a ping pong table there and would watch the game sitting on the top of stunning Byrdcliffe furniture—we were young and didn’t weigh much. There was an eating porch attached to the kitchen and another in the front of the house. Outside it had a garage and a playhouse evidently made by the educator John Dewey for his children. I would use that to camp and sleep over with friends.
Abigail Sturges and Cousin Mimi Herbert in Front of Carniola, c. 1950-1964
We moved to Woodstock in 1951 from Stone Ridge where we were living in a large family compound. We moved to be independent and to be near the Art Students League, as my mother was an aspiring painter. During the four month summer season my father would work in the city and we would drive down to Poughkeepsie to pick him up from the ferry as he would take the train from New York to Poughkeepsie. When he came, it meant FOOD in the house––corn, steak, meat. No more Spam and chipped beef from a jar. My older brother Hollister (Terry) and my older sister Pam and I (nicknamed Gai) always looked forward to Fridays.
It seemed like every weekend my parents would entertain: masses of food, competitive ping pong which became looser and more playful as the evening wore on. It was the same core group, mostly consisting of artists, with frequent newcomers. Eugene (Gene) and Hannah Ludins, Petra and Blake Cabot, Jane and Wendell (Wendy) Jones, Vadua Padua, Cece and Joe Forman, Anita and Dick Jordan, Bruce and Ethel Magafan, Woody and Jane Broun, Barbara and Harvey Fite, Cathy (Chevy Chase’s mother) and John Cedarquist, Marianne Mecklem, Annie and Howard Koch, Amy and John Small, Tomas and Elizabeth Penning, Phoebe and Belmont (Bill) Towbin. The list goes on. All really engaged and interesting people as they wanted to include the younger generation in the discussions. They were actually interested in our opinions even though most of them didn’t have children. My parents’ New York friends were not particularly interested in what we had to say!
Chevy Chase on East Lawn in Front of Carniola, c. 1958
Our group consisted of Ned and Chevy Chase, Peter and Wendy Jones, Tad and Johnny Richards, Pixie Mecklem, Bill and Pietr Hitzig, my very attractive cousin Mimi, and the three of us. Sometimes there was a houseguest or two who fit right in. Ned and my brother ruled the group. We would play tag WITH POINTS in Carniola. They invented a scary game called Frankenstein: one of us would sit in a chair and begin to slowly wake up while we all scattered to hide. Frankenstein would then move about like a robot and would find the younger terrified kids. I once hid in a piece of Byrdcliffe furniture among blankets in the ping pong room. I still remember my fright.
Unidenified Child Playing in Central Skylit Room
At Carniola with Byrdcliffe Furniture,
One time Ned and Terry organized two teams’ in the ping pong room. They took the table down, gave each team several croquet balls and we had to try to bowl them to hit the other teams’ bare feet. Obviously no parents were around. It turned out that my parents were on their way back from a dinner party on a beautiful clear night, and my mother asked my father (she later told me), “Do you hear thunder? How could that be? Oh no! It must be the kids.” Somehow Terry and Ned heard them coming up the mountain and we all scampered to bed under the covers. They were furious as my mother whipped off my blankets and saw me fully clothed. But, of course, I was the youngest and so didn’t get into trouble. Just the leaders did. A night not to be forgotten. Great fun.
Betty Sturges (1913-2003)
My mother attended the Art Students League and also took private lessons with Herman Cherry in our garage which she had converted into a studio. It caused Terry and Ned to go to the League also—to see who was the better painter! Neither won that one. But they would sunbath on the lawn to see who could win the tan contest. Terry also volunteered at the tennis court right below the house and John Small and Bill Towbin would play early tennis and then walk up to the house and be joined by their wives and they would all have early cocktails with my parents to salute the day. Terry kept the schedule at the court and sold cold soft drinks. I had to even pay for mine.
Then the croquet matches would begin. The masters were Howard Koch and my father. My mother always asked to reshoot with the excuse that she had mistakenly lifted her head. She never got away with it.
Tulipe in Front Hall of Carniola, c. 1950-1964
Then there was our dog, a French poodle named Tulipe by my brother, from a Victor Hugo novel. She really was the center of the household. She had ten puppies and were sold for a nominal fee to friends: Cathy Cedarquist took two, naming them Poppy and Posey; Howard Mandel not only took one but later painted a watercolor of her, calling her the Grande Dame of Woodstock. Tulipe even helped us three siblings with the dishes. After all parties of twenty or thirty we had to do the dishes. Terry organized the routine as a washer, a dryer, and a putter-awayer. Tulipe first licked the plates making it easier for the washer. We would rotate the jobs every night. We made it a game.
What we didn’t have was a swimming pool. Everyday we would ask our mother, where we could go that day. And so, when Peter Whitehead said the house couldn’t be sold as it was part of a large trust, but when Gioja and Ben Webster' house Avanti that was nearby was being put on the market, we bought it, and the first thing we did was put in a much-needed swimming pool. It was a golden time. I think I want to approach our core group to write up our childhood, as it was unusual, and we have writers amongst us: Tad, Peter, and Terry. We all went from one house to another, dropped off by parents before they would go to another house for a party.
It really was a Brigadoon. Lucky us.