:Although the furniture from St. Petersburg is at the core of Hokanson and Siller's Russian collection, it is only the core. Starting with a period painting of Nicholas II, which Hokanson surmises was done for a Russian embassy around 1900, and one of Nicholas's doomed son, Czarevitch Alexis, who was killed with the rest of the imperial family in 1918, Hokanson has assembled reproductions of imperial portraits. "We were introduced to a curator at the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg," says Hokanson, "and we were able to commission about twelve excellent hand-painted replicas of their paintings." Add to this the collection of letters, unused stationery with the imperial monogram, china, uniforms and memorabilia, and the house assumes the dimension of a living house museum of the culture of old Russia...(Click here for the article)
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During a fit of insomnia on a business trip fifteen years ago, rug designer Larry Hokanson began reading Nicholas and Alexandra, Robert K. Massie's epic history of the last czar and czarina of Russia. By the time he was finished, he was a confirmed Russian enthusiast. Therefore it wasn't surprising that, when Hokanson and his partner, interior designer Michael J. Siller, decided to build the house they had talked about for years in their home town of Houston, it turned out to be a storehouse of Imperial Russian culture.
Hokanson and Siller's love for Russian antiques meant that their first trip to St. Petersburg took on the nature of a pilgrimage, and they were helped in their quest by the professional guides they found, Tanya and Nicky Yermolayev, whom Hokanson describes as "Park Avenue tour guides to Russia." Tanya Yermolayev had worked at the Hermitage Museum during the Soviet years, and she had stayed in contact with many of her former colleagues there. As Hokanson and Siller became more and more dazzled by the furniture and interiors of the Hermitage and the adjacent Winter Palace, she offered to introduce them to people who could facilitate the making of reproductions by the restoration department of the palaces. They knew that they were about to realize the love of Á lifetime.
Upon returning to New York, Hokanson and Siller immediately made an appointment with their architects, the firm of Ike Kligerman Barkley. When John Ike, with whom Hokanson had worked for years designing rugs for mutual clients, saw the ̉Áir walk in carrying books about Russian art and architecture, he remarked, "Let's, see what unaffordable ideas Michael has come up with."
Hokanson and Siller had known all along that they wanted a formal house on their moderate size lot in Houston's tony River Oaks- a house of sufficient presence to incorporate architectural elements, interior details and furniture similar to those they had seen in the Hermitage and the Winter Palace. Says Hokanson of Ike and his colleagues, "They can take a relatively small house and make it grand."
Of the house's placement, Ike says, "The idea of putting a house lengthwise on a lot, so that the end of the house serves as the facade turned toward the street, was a customary device of late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century urban Neoclassicism, whether it was used in American cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, or in London or St. Petersburg. This type of house would allow more interior space and height than a conventional one on that lot."
Ike showed his clients a book of interior elevations by James and Robert Adam, Britain's best-known eigh-teenth-century Neoclassical architects. The Adam book contained a piano nobile - the main floor of a grand house that is located on the second level - that provided a sweep through the house, broken only by open arches.
The partners returned to Russia to meet with a curator in the restoration department of the Hermitage. "We had been advised," says Siller, "to bring blueprints, fabric samples and paint colors - anything pertaining to the house - as well as a list of the type of pieces that we wanted reproduced." They spent an entire day with the curator and her interpreter. The curator told them that she would let them know the next day whether the restoration department would agree to undertake the job.
The restoration department did agree, as a onetime arrangement, to reproduce examples of the furniture Siller and Hokanson wanted, so the two, guided by the curator, embarked on a daylong trip through the palaces. "The museum would only build exact replicas, using woods and techniques that had been used for the originals," explains Siller. "If the curator thought that a piece we were interested in would not serve for the purpose we were proposing, she would simply say "nyet", and we would move on." In the basement of the palace, furniture was piled everywhere. Siller pointed in one direction and asked what he was looking at. "The sled of Peter the Great," replied the curator.
"No, no, the white-and-gold chairs underneath," said Siller. The curator gave him a beaming smile and said that, yes, those would be correct for a dining room. Ultimately the Americans decided to commission reproductions or three console tables-one made for Nicholas I in 1840 - three chandeliers, twelve dining chairs from a set made for Alexander I in 1820 and two sets of wood-and-gilt doors.
At the same time in River Oaks, negotiations were going on between the architects and the local architectural review board, which declared that the house was too tall for the community's height restrictions. "Our firm usually does country houses that are seen as objects in space," says Ike. "It was unusual for us to do a house in the style of a town house where the facade was a self-contained visual unit."
An important finishing' detail for the classical image was to have been a lime-stone balustrade around the top of the house. That, unfortunately, had to be sacrificed to the River Oaks height restrictions, but the architects were adamant about protecting the scale of the interiors. Ike's partner Thomas Kligerman says, "This architecture is as dramatic as anything we do. It's all about effect, and we were not going to give up on realizing the fullest effect possible in the interior."
There were further modifications as time went on, some of them based on the aesthetic dictated by the pieces coming from Russia. Because Hokanson was certain he wanted reproductions of "the wonderful sets of doors from the Winter Palace," the open piano nobile that the architects had found in the Adam brothers' book was changed into three rooms-a living room, dining room and library-with the two sets of doors between them.
As the pieces from Russia began to arrive in Houston, the care with which they had been made was reflected in the care with which they were packed. "The crating was staggering," says Siller. "Every wooden crate was lined with felt, and the exterior supports on these boxes-which would ultimately be discarded-were beveled." There were some surprises, however, despite the careful monitoring by the Americans. The three chandeliers that had been ordered were supposed to be identical and were to hang in the enfilade of living room, dining room and library. When they were uncrated, the colors were what Siller and Hokanson had specified, but the chandeliers themselves were different from one another. The curators had determined that it would not be authentic to reproduce a chandelier in one style three times, so they had found three different models. "Nevertheless, the results were spectacular," says Siller, "and we realized they gave the rooms a subtle feeling of being unique."
As would be the case in a St. Petersburg mansion in the time of the czars, many pieces of furniture that Hokanson and Siller had bought over the years are English or French antiques that complement the Russian objects. Consequently, the entrance hall is distinguished by a huge circa 1860 English garden urn with classical figures in relief, and the second set of entrance doors is circa 1880, of French cast iron with gilt-bronze details.
Although the furniture from St. Petersburg is at the core of Hokanson and Siller's Russian collection, it is only the core. Starting with a period painting of Nicholas II, which Hokanson surmises was done for a Russian embassy around 1900, and one of Nicholas's doomed son, Czarevitch Alexis, who was killed with the rest of the imperial family in 1918, Hokanson has assembled reproductions of imperial portraits. "We were introduced to a curator at the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg' around the same time we were working with the people at the Hermitage," says Hokanson, "and we were able to commission about twelve excellent hand-painted replicas of their paintings." Add to this the collection of letters, unused stationery with the imperial monogram, china, uniforms and memorabilia, and the house assumes the dimension of a living house museum of the culture of old Russia.
John Ike has described the relationship of the architects with Larry Hokanson and Michael Siller as "collaboration among professionals in related fields." Hokanson, for instance, designed rugs for the house based on hundreds of photographs Siller took of the ceilings and parquetry floors of the Gatchina Palace, the Tauride Palace and the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. It is the completeness of the house in these subtle ways that extends outward from the marriage of inspiration, diligence and professional skills to create the en-folding environment of another time.
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Image credits: Issue March 1999
Architecture: Richard Meier & Partners
Photography: Scott Frances
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