Home Arts and Leisure Henry Sleeper, Radical, Romantic Antiquarian Designer

Henry Sleeper, Radical, Romantic Antiquarian Designer

He designed Gloucester's over-the-top Beauport mansion

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Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934) was a radical and romantic antiquarian. He always loved antiques and even collected them as a boy in Boston. Later, his summer home called Beauport on Eastern Point in Gloucester, known today as the Sleeper-McCann House, became a showcase of his expertise as an interior decorator.

The Sleeper-McCann House, also known as Beauport

Each of the 40 rooms brims with his ornate collections of folk art, chinaware, furniture, silhouettes and colored glass of amber and purple. He designed it so that each room depicted a different theme, color, shape or period of history. He had an excellent eye for color and detail. There is the China Trade room in green and gold, covered with hand-painted Chinese wallpaper; the Octagon Room with its black walls and red and gold décor; the circular Book Tower on two levels; and the Belfry Chamber in green, with slanted ceilings papered with birds and flowers.

The Pine Kitchen contains salvaged wood from his mother’s childhood home in Pembroke, Mass., also called the Pembroke Room. He had fun decorating and often juxtaposed large spaces with small spaces, and valuable objects with trivial ones. He also used hidden light sources and mirrors to create surprising effects.

Many famous people commissioned design work from Sleeper, including Isabella Stewart Gardner, several Hollywood celebrities and Henry Francis DuPont for his Chestertown House and Winterthur. He also decorated the Tyler Mansion in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Henry Sleeper

Beginnings of Henry Sleeper

Henry was born in Boston in 1878, son of Civil War veteran Maj. Jacob Henry Sleeper (1839-1891), and Maria Westcott. His grandfather was Jacob Sleeper (1802-1889), a tailor, co-founder of Boston University, and a staunch Methodist. It was a family with deep connections.

Henry Sleeper’s appearance in Andrew Piatt’s guest book.

According to Harvard Magazine, Henry was introduced to Eastern Point in 1906 by a friend, Abram Piatt Andrew, an economics professor at Harvard, and later Treasury Secretary and U.S. Congressman. Piatt Andrew had built a house there called Red Roof in 1902, and Henry became enamored of the area overlooking the picturesque harbor. Historic New England has two of Andrew’s guest books available online, 1907-1912 and 1913-1930. They contain many photographs. Henry Sleeper’s name and photo appear frequently.

In 1907 Henry purchased a house nearby and began his elaborate decorating, which continued for many years. He named it Beauport, for la beau port, the name given to the area by Samuel de Champlain, according to househistree.com. Beauport’s guest books from 1908-1921 belong to the Cape Ann Museum archives.


Elaborate Parties and Relationships

Househistree.com described Piatt Andrew as a “party loving eccentric who entertained many of America’s leading intellectual lights of the day.” An article from Economics in the Rear-View Mirror about Red Roof also mentioned the ceaseless entertaining. It stated “one of Gardner’s biographers hints at the goings on at Andrew’s home Red Roof: Gossip had it that often all of the guests were men, their pastimes peculiar. Yet all the ladies on Eastern Point were fascinated by Piatt.“  Red Roof was noted for secret passages, elaborate costume parties and a hidden bar where guests would party during Prohibition. Piatt Andrew often entertained his students, one of whom was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Henry Sleeper and Andrew Piatt

Henry Sleeper and Piatt Andrew were close, and were possibly lovers, according to the website elisarollelivejournal. Letters written from Sleeper to Andrew from 1906-1915* suggested the intensity of his feelings. Also, elisarolle.com/queerplaces states that Piatt Andrew “had been the leading light of a clearly homosexual circle since his graduate days at Harvard in the 1890’s.”

Henry Sleeper, Piatt Andrew, and several other summer residents on Eastern Point belonged to a group called “Dabsville” for Davidge, Andrew, Beaux and Sleeper. Cecilia Beaux was a portrait painter and Joanna Davidge was an intellectual and head of a New York finishing school. Isabella Stewart Gardner and others often dined and partied with them. According to the blog from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, “Dabsville provided an important place for those deemed “other” by the social norms of the time. Many of the residents and their guests…would be categorized as gay or queer in today’s understanding of sexuality. These parties offered an opportunity for folks to mingle away from a heteronormative gaze.”

Dear Friend and Comrade

The elisarolle.com/queerplaces website also mentioned that Henry Sleeper had previously had a relationship with author Guy Wetmore Carryl. Ir states that Sleeper kept at least three photographs of Carryl in his bedroom. Carryl’s posthumous last novel (Far From The Maddening Girls) had also been dedicated to Sleeper. The dedication reads: “In furtherance of an unfulfilled intention, this book is dedicated to the author’s dear friend and comrade, Henry D. Sleeper.”

Guy Wetmore Carryl

Sleeper had spent a lot of time at Carryl’s bachelor cottage in Swampscott, Mass., according to The Importance of Being Furnished: Four Bachelors at Home, by R. Tripp Evans. Sleeper “described life there as idyllic…and Carryl…a most genial and communicative companion,” according to Evans.

Carryl died tragically from injuries as his house burned down in 1904. In 1906, after Sleeper’s first visit to Piatt Andrew’s Red Roof, he wrote that “he had never expected the good fortune again of finding anyone possessing the characteristics that made [Carryl] what he was.”

World War I

World War I temporarily changed the dynamics of the Eastern Point enclave, as both Henry Sleeper and Piatt Andrew served in France. Piatt Andrew drove an ambulance during the war and helped to create the American Ambulance Field Service in 1915, later the American Field Service (AFS).

Sleeper then became the U.S. representative and a major fundraiser for the American Field Service, according to Wikipedia.

[W]hile Andrew served in the battle zones, Sleeper crisscrossed the Atlantic with supplies and funds, and worked closely with the French Military. France awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.

Piatt Andrew eventually became a lieutenant colonel in the Army Field Service. In his book Eastern Point, Joseph E. Garland wrote that Sleeper joined him overseas as director of the headquarters in Paris in 1918 and 1919.

After the war, Sleeper expanded his design practice. He won national recognition through prestigious periodicals such as Country Life and House Beautiful, which led to several high-visibility clients. Although his office was in Boston, it appears that he traveled to Eastern Point even during winter. For example, the 1920 census finds him at Eastern Point in January, age 43, no occupation listed. Even back in 1910 he was in Eastern Point as a real estate broker in April, and at his Boston residence in May – occupation: own income. The 1930 Boston census was the only one where he was listed as an interior decorator.

The Paul Revere Room at Beauport

Tribute to Henry Sleeper

Henry Sleeper died from leukemia at Massachusetts General Hospital on Sept. 22, 1934. Piatt Andrew wrote a tribute published in the Gloucester Daily Times, according to Linda Merrill’s design blog. In it, he wrote “A valiant soul left this world when Henry Sleeper’s life ebbed out the other day.” His longer tribute can be found at the AFS archive. Piatt Andrew died two years later, in June 1936. As Henry never married, Beauport was left to his brother Stephen, a real estate broker. Stephen sold the property in 1935 to Mrs. Helena Woolworth McCann, daughter of F.W. Woolworth. When she died a few years later, the property was donated to Historic New England. In 2003, Beauport, Sleeper-McCann House was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Antiques Magazine praised him in a 2009 article, “The Legacy of Henry Davis Sleeper.”

His vision was radical and is still influential: in his passion for Americana… and in his ability to create a treasure-filled house that still feels intimate.

Today, the Sleeper-McCann House is open from May to October. Since 2008, all tours openly acknowledge Henry as a gay man, according to the National Council on Public History. Staff also work with The History Project, which documents Boston’s LGBTQ history.

End Notes

Sources: Eastern Point by Joseph E. Garland; Ambulance No. 10: Personal Letters from the Front by Leslie Buswell [Sleeper wrote preface; Andrew wrote introduction]; The Importance of Being Furnished: Four Bachelors at Home, by R. Tripp Evans

Ambulance drivers wanted (advertisement), courtesy of AFS

*These letters were compiled and edited in 1991 by Andrew L. Gray and E. Parker Hayden, entitled Beauport Chronicle: The Intimate Letters from Henry Davis Sleeper to Abram Piatt Andrew Jr., 1906-1915.

Images: Beauport winter exterior By Ymblanter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19575310. Beauport By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57303341.

You can als see more photos of Beauport at the following links:

Rebecca Rector of Troy, N.Y., is a history and genealogy researcher, and retired librarian from Siena College. She has been transcribing letters and diaries for Newberry Library and National Archives for the past three years.



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