Friday, July 16, 2010

The Copley House (aka Barton House)

This week, I had the pleasure of a lengthy chat with Mr. Almon Copley, a member of the Copley family that occupied the Barton House from 1932 to 1945.  My contact with Mr. Copley, who is now in his 90s and retired to Nevada, came by way of his nephew who had visited the house last year and signed the guest book.  Almon Copley has many vivid recollections of living in the Barton House during a period that is under-documented in Martin House history, and here are some highlights of our conversation:
  • Almon's father, Frank W. Copley, a manager for Bemis Bag Co. (a maker of potato sacks and other food packaging) was drawn to Wright's design for the Barton House, but declined to purchase the house because he doubted the performance of certain features such as the gently pitched roof and broadly cantilevered eves.  He also noted that the broad copper gutters succumbed to ice build-up on more than one occasion, and were knocked off the house in the middle of the night (to the shock of the sleeping family).  So the Copleys, perhaps wisely, rented their house from the Martin family.
  • Almon is a walking encyclopedia of his education and work history:  he graduated from Bennet HS in the class of '37, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in '41, enlisted in the Army in '42, received his Army commission in November of '45 and was married the next day - he recalls having spent his first night as a married man at 118 Summit Avenue.  He was in Harvard Business School at the time, and soon became an executive with the Barcalo Manufacturing Company (famous for their Barcalounger reclining chair).  He noted that Barcalo originally made metal beds, and sold a great deal to the Larkin Company for their premiums.
  • Mr. Copley had some interesting character sketches of Martin staff from the 1930s:  Ruben Polder, a "Dutchman," was the gardener, and diligently tended the hedges and other enduring flora around the property, though the conservatory was not in use at that point and the kitchen garden was also fallow; Copley also noted that his own half sister, Fannie, was married on the Martin House grounds (or what was left of them) in 1937; William Thorpe, the chauffeur, may have worked previously (prior to 1915) for Sir Henry Rider Haggard, an English writer of popular adventure novels; Thorpe's son, Arthur ("Art") was described as a "big, good-looking guy" and a lieutenant in the National Guard cavalry. 
  • Mr. Copley had a few notes on the plantings of the Martin House grounds.  Although the conservatory was locked and disuse for then entire time his family lived on the site, he said that he could see into the many windows and the Nike at the north end, obscured by neglected vines, was a fascinating source of mystery.  He added that Mrs. Martin had a beloved dogwood tree that flourished just outside the conservatory - miraculous to the neighbors because it thrived in a zone where it shouldn't.  And he noted that the urn at the Barton House entrance was planted regularly with lantana.
  • Mr. Copley had some interesting anecdotes about details and changes in the Barton House itself.  For example, he confirmed that there was an intercom terminal in the short hall from the dining room to the kitchen (at the top of the basement stairs).  The intercom system was not working by the time his family moved in, but he liked to pretend that he was using it to call-up Dracula.  It seems that he spent a good deal of time in the basement as a boy:  there was a ping-pong table in one of the rooms, where he painted the foundation stones various colors.  Another antechamber of the basement was used as a sort of clubhouse and often candle-lit (a bad idea in retrospect, he thought).  Upstairs, he said that his mother used the horizontal frieze rails to hold potted plants, and in the summer, she would make an "outdoor living room" of the veranda by putting out an oriental rug and wicker furniture.  Perhaps most notably, the family had a Steinway piano somewhere in the entry hall, and Frank Lloyd Wright urged them to move it into the living room, closer to the fire, when he visited in the early 1930s.  I suspect that this may have been the same visit documented by Edgar Tafel in his book Apprentice to Genius.  Copley said that this same piano is still in the family - restored and used by his son, Al Copley, who is an accomplished jazz pianist.
  • Overall, Mr. Copley seems to regard his family's time in the Barton House as a pleasant and colorful period, tinged with regret at seeing the rest of the Martin estate crumbling away.  And he said that the experience of living in a Wright-designed house left him with two enduring concepts:  first, that Wright's ability to "get inside the clients' heads" and respond to their personalities in the resulting designs was unique and influential, and second, that Wright's sense of melding landscape and grounds with the buildings had an effect that he appreciates to this day.
Perhaps the most memorable sound byte from our conversation was Mr. Copley's wry reflection on the Barton House, that it was "horrible to heat...but beautiful to look at."  

We know what you mean, Almon.  Wright provided the beauty, and we're working on the heat issue. 


Dr. P. Mark Hill said...

Great information!! I just love the personal insights into the pasts of Martin and Wright. Thanks for your research.

Martha said...

Yes, I too enjoy such personal insights. Many years ago I met Martha Pfarner who was the upstairs maid for Isabelle Martin. Martha sent me a letter stating she worked for Mrs Martin in the Spring of 1936 until January 1, 1938 when Mrs Martin moved out of 125 Jewett Pkwy. Martha sent photos taken in 1937 of Reuben Polder in front of 125 Jewett and of William Thorpe, chauffeur, taken at Graycliff. Her lengthy letter included such interesting information as who assigned the daily tasks, which bedroom each member of the live-in staff occupied as well which staircase she was allowed to use. Furthermore, this type of information validates Almon Copley's memories. To me, this social history is vital to the whole story of the Martin Family.