The real surprise at the Cuneo Mansion last week wasn't the story of Samuel Insull or John Cuneo Sr. or John Cuneo Jr., circus animal trainer, or the building's Italianate design, or the large arrays of fine art, antiques, tapestries, sculpture, silver, or porcelain within -- room after room after room -- or even the suit of armor given to the Cuneos by William Randolph Hearst, poised there in the Great Hall. I expected to be impressed by the house and its contents and its history, and I was.
The really remarkable thing for us was that Ann not only let herself be dragged on the tour, she enjoyed herself. She paid attention to the guide and looked at things. She was taken by the place from the moment we entered. "Wow, this is great," she said (fittingly) of the Great Hall, which must have seemed much larger to her than to someone my size, though I'd call it large enough. Throughout the rest of the tour, she was actively interested.
The tour, led by a highly knowledgeable young woman, started with seven people, but picked up a few more as we went through a dozen or more rooms. Another child that went all the way through was a boy of about 10. Once the guide had told us that some of the ceiling color in the formal dining room was gold leaf, not gold paint, he was excited by the idea, and after that asked about many of the yellow or goldish surfaces that he saw: "Is that gold leaf too? What about that?" Sometimes it was. Sometimes it was just paint. But I can't blame the kid for being a goldbug; he's about the right age to be first bitten.
Some of the rooms, the bedrooms especially, are already beginning to blur into one big mid-20th century posh space. But I have my favorite rooms, such as the chapel. Just off the Great Hall is a chapel -- a bone fide Catholic chapel. According to the tour booklet: "The chapel was a sun porch during the Insull family's residence. Hiring John A. Mallin to paint the Stations of the Cross in the lunettes and to design the stained glass windows, the Cuneos converted the porch into a devotional space. It was rare to have a consecrated chapel in a private residence, but Cardinal Strich, a family friend, was able to obtain papal permission, and the chapel was dedicated on July 8, 1941, the day of the Cuneo children's confirmation. John Jr. and Consuela are the children under the protection of their guardian angel pictured in the second window to the left of the altar."
John Mallin did the lunettes and ceiling murals of the formal dining room and the breakfast room, which also sports a work by Joshua Reynolds (I didn't note the title; "Portrait of a Fop You've Never Heard Of," maybe). Even better, the room's "gilt torchiere in the corners once lit (with candlelight) the palace of Napoleon in Corsica." Having something of Napoleon's might have been a point of pride. Biltmore, after all, has Napoleon's chess set.
Elsewhere was the Ship's Room, which the guide called Insull's and Cuneo's "man cave." The booklet continues: "This room gets its name from the Linenfold wall paneling, which was taken from the captain's quarters of a 17th-century English sailing vessel... each panel on the wall opens with a concealed handle to reveal a recess for shelves. Since both Insull and Cuneo used this room as a study and office, most of the shelf space was filled with books and papers. There were guidebooks from the Chicago World's fairs, manuals on Hackney pony breeding, boxed sets of 78 rpm albums, and issues of Connoisseur magazine, among other things..."
Things once available only to the wealthy have widened their scope to lower socioeconomic classes. Hardwood, handmade Linenfold wall paneling may still be the province of the rich, or even unavailable, but most people have access to clutter these days.
Labels: Ann, museums