"Crafted by Inspiration"

by Margo Miller, Boston Globe (January 30, 1997)



fireplaceNEWTON -- Lives shape houses, and houses, lives. Living proof of that began for Judith and John Tankard 3d more than 20 years ago when, looking for something they could afford in this garden suburb, they bought a wreck of a center-entrance colonial. Most real-estate brokers rated it only a "drive by." Hippies had lived there. The decor was early squatter – vinyl wallpaper with dead-mouse carpeting -- and water had coursed from a burst pipe. A house that needed help.

In the decades since, John has established his architectural practice in what had been the garage. Where Judith's designer-knitwear boutique had been on the second floor is the office where she writes books on the history of landscape design When it came to the future style of the house, the Tankards followed the advice they would give others, whether for architecture or gardens. Live with the setting for a while. See where it wants to go. So they moved in and patched things up a bit. They decided to renovate one room at a time and until it was the living room's turn, they would pretend not to see the "putrid color" of the fireplace tiles. But, first, something had to be done about the front yard, which was grassless hardpack. So John designed and built a fence and through his clients Judith found two women to design and plant a small garden.

This crucial decision turned out to be the seed for the style of the house. Arts & Crafts it would be, the homage of two Americans to a 19th-century movement that began in England and spread as far as Russia and the United States. A reaction to mass-produced Victorian decor, Arts & Crafts was the new look, though its inspiration was the fine handwork produced by medieval guilds. Neither Tankard could have guessed Arts & Crafts would be their future life. John grew up near Washington, D.C., in "a very suburban, traditional middle-class house, 7,000 square feet, the 1940s equivalent of a little Cape, except that it happened to be brick." Judith's childhood home on Long Island was filled with Victoriana. "We used to joke that my parents were either ahead of or behind the times."

The new garden "really started things off," Judith Tankard recalled the other day. "I was going through burnout with my retail business. But I didn't know what to turn to. The two women who did our garden told me about this program at Radcliffe in landscape design. I thought it would link up with architectural history, which is what I studied at New York University." The final part of the course was on England's last great exponents of Arts& Crafts, landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) and her chief collaborator, the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944). "After I took the course, I realized I knew so much that I should be offering a course myself on Jekyll and Lutyens." In them she would find the inspiration for her house and her new career as writer and lecturer.

This was fine with John Tankard. At North Carolina State, where he studied architecture, a great influence was Harlwell Harris, a California architect with a real feeling for the crafts movement. Tankard was also in the business of making livable houses -- the February issue of Architectural Digest shows his renovations for Cambridge novelist Alice Hoffman – and Lutyens was a master at that. Lutyens may have had more space to work with and budgets to match. His clients commissioned country houses that might run to 30 rooms. The "small house" he designed for Jekyll at Munstead Wood had five bedrooms as well as a "state bedroom" or master suite, a great hall used as the living room, a book room, dining room and kitchen with the usual Victorian pantries and larders, a work room bigger than any of the reception rooms and a garden shop. Next to this the Tankards' center-entrance colonial was a mere cottage, and yet it boasts three stories over a full basement. The ground falls away to the r ear of the house, and this canyon of a wild garden provides a rush of space.

Nor could you possibly mistake a 1920s colonial -- "an ordinary builder's house" John Tankard calls it -- for the Tudor-style manor that Lutyens did for Jekyll. Of brick and tile, wood and rough-cast plaster, the house was "at once quirky and contrived but simple, elegant, and eminently comfortable," Judith Tankard and co-author Martin A. Wood write in "Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood" (Sagapress Inc., 1996, $35). "A number of its features became standards of Lutyens' picturesque early work – exaggerated chimneys, steep-hipped roofs, and an oblique entrance."

But, as their discerning eye told the Tankards, their own small house had one or two features indicating something of the Arts & Crafts style had percolated through to the anonymous American builder. Those diamond-paned windows, while a fixture of colonial revival houses or "Queen Anne" cottages, gave the facade something of the feeling of Lutyens Tudoresque with its tiny-paned windows. That the Tankards' house was shingled gave it the rustic quality you don't get with colonial clapboards.

John Tankard then designed a new front porch. He hid the round "colonial" pillars under square pillars that he tapered, till the porch became a sort of inglenook. To step into it is to be embraced by the house even before you enter the front door.

As in so many center-entrance colonials, the Tankards' living room is narrow and runs the entire width of the house. Across the central hall is the dining room; its rear wall abuts the kitchen. The Tankards made several changes downstairs. They put a tiny powder room in what had been the hallway door to the kitchen. They enlarged the hall closet by pushing a wall out onto the porch. The kitchen got a sweep of windows onto the canyon and deck. Also the first of the house's Arts & Crafts touches.


Most people think of the Arts & Crafts palette as primarily a poem to earth colors, wood, brick, stone, soft metals and other natural materials. (John Tankard jokes he wears "the three Arts & Crafts colors," which, the other day, were shades of hazel and heather and gray. "Dusty porridge" was a common reaction 30 years ago to the Arts & Crafts revival, and compared to the psychedelic '70s that was true. But that was also to forget just how many colors occur naturally in nature. The Tankards say their Arts & Crafts kitchen began when Judith fell in love with a 1920s gas stove that John spotted on the North Shore. But would Judith like the color. It's a minty green, "sort of chlorophyll, like the kind of taffy you had as a child, and I just had to have it," says Judith.

Playing along with the color, the Tankards began combing flea markets -- Brimfield was a favorite -- for old crockery mixing bowls in that same family of color. When he paneled the kitchen in oak, John broke the expanse of wood with small greeny turquoise tiles.

At least they had a choice of color for the kitchen tiles. With the living room fireplace they were stuck with what Judith called "those putrid tiles." Mind you, these were desirable collectibles, the "Chelsea tiles" first made in the 1880s near Boston by the J.G. and J.F. Low Co. of Chelsea. But the color! A sickly caramel that whines at the world. But by finding a tawny wood for the new mantelpiece, John made peace with the Chelsea tiles, integrating them with the room. The wood of the fireplace surround is pegged here and there, one of those Arts & Crafts touches that salute cabinetry.

John Tankard likes woodworking. From his basement workshop have come masterful tables, each a variation on planked tops. One is the dining table of maple with an ebonized finish. For Judith in her knitwear days he made and designed a cutting table; the long edge is notched to measure in inches and metrics. This table is now a library table at the far end of the living room, where Judith can lay out her big folio art books. From David Berman of Plymouth, an Arts & Crafts enthusiast who reproduces the elegantly folkish designs of C. F. A. Vosey (1857-1941), they acquired a pair of songbird sconces for the dining room. For their 20th wedding anniversary John gave Judith one of Vosey's cheerful mantel clocks.

This is a house defined by books. A front bedroom is now a library, paneled by John. A second bedroom is devoted to periodicals. Judith writes in a third bedroom. Her most recent book has an American subject, "The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman" (Sagapress Inc., 1996, $40). Landscape design was one of the first professions thought suitable for women. They brought to it an understanding different from architects, who, as men, were accustomed to design by construction. An afternoon's entertainment for the poet and landscaper Alexander Pope and his pals in the "vegetable aristocracy" was telling crews of laborers where to move forests of grown trees. Women landscapers, says Tankard, came at design via the desire for beautiful gardens. Jekyll had the eye of a painter, and Shipman (1869-1950) created sensuous havens with a grounding link to seasonal rhythms and cycles.

England, understandably, is the Tankards' favorite vacation spot, especially when Judith can combine holiday and work (she writes for Country Life and lectures). They comb antiques shops and print galleries for things to bring home. Suites of small landscapes, including charming oils by Henry Moon, who was a botanical illustrator, now dress their living room walls, the gilt frames a perfect Arts & Crafts touch against robin's egg blue walls. John Tankard's own enthusiasm for a Lutyens contemporary, architect Baillie Scott, has led the couple to seek out his houses -- and knock on the door. "People are generally pleased to show you around. They love his houses too.