With A Little Help From Their Friends

by David Cathers
From Issue 43

Ed and Kathy Friedman live in Pittsburgh, Penn., in a residential neighborhood that, 90 years ago was at the end of a trolley line that carried commuters into the center of the city. As Ed says, the area was developed “as an experiment in ‘country living’ within easy reach of downtown.”

There are about eight variant versions of their house up and down the block, though most have been, in Ed’s word, “remuddled.” The Friedmans’ house is a classic, vernacular Arts and Crafts Foursquare constructed about 1915 by a well-known local builder/developer named Samuel McCaslin.

43feat1It is three stories tall and has a broad front porch, red brick exterior walls with three green Teco tiles set into the facade, Prairie-style wood trim, wide eaves and a red tile roof pierced by a dormer that faces the street.

Though handsome and substantial, the interior woodwork is a standard product, ordered by McCaslin from a catalog. Albert Tannler of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, who has led architectural history tour groups through the house, mentions the few Colonial Revival-influenced decorative flourishes to be seen in its interior. Then he points to the wood paneling, beamed ceilings, built-in furniture, glazed tile fireplaces and art-glass windows and identifies the strongest influence that shaped its design: the Craftsman houses by Gustav Stickley’s architects from the beginning of the 20th century.

3Tannler’s insight is exactly right: when the Friedmans found this home in 1985, they bought it because they saw immediately that it would be the right environment for their collection of Gustav Stickley furniture. “The interior proportions,” says Ed, “fit the furniture perfectly.

“One brother ran the company, another designed the homes and the third oversaw construction,” architect Tim Shea, the owner of a low-slung Wild Rose bungalow with big, chunky porch pillars explains. “I don’t think they had formal architectural training, but they certainly had a passion for design.

“Close to 100 years ago the builders and craftsmen took responsibility for creating a high-quality home,” Tim continues, “which we can’t really replicate today for various reasons. Our home shows a lot of thoughtful design: the pyramid shape of the stone porch pillars and rock planters is repeated in the colonnade and the lights in the dining room.

Because Melinda and I are in the trade, we probably notice those details more than some people, but I think our visitors still get an overall sense of continuity.”

Touring the Collections

The Old Hickory furniture and the Greene and Greene-style lanterns on the Friedmans’ front porch are hints of what’s inside. In the entrance hall, there are cushioned built-in seats on both sides of a wood-framed, green-tile fireplace; this is the first of the five fireplaces found in the house. The Arts and Crafts collection starts right here: a hammered copper Roycroft light fixture hangs from the ceiling, and a copper and wicker Stickley table lamp is tucked unobtrusively at the foot of the stairs.

The art collection starts here too. The painting above the mantelpiece depicts bathers in an idyllic landscape. It is a “nocturne” (a work of art dealing with evening) by Christian Walter, an early-20th-century landscape painter remembered as the dean of Pittsburgh art teachers, and one of the artists the Friedmans collect. In his book Art Across America, William Gerdtz praises Walter as a unique Impressionist with an unparalleled gift for capturing the quality of western Pennsylvania sunlight, “seen through a smoky industrial haze.”

Step through an opening between Stickley-like post-and-panel partitions and you have left the entrance hall and are now in the living room. Here is a fireplace faced with matte green Grueby-like tiles, flanked by built-in bookcases with a big and very useful built-in desk nearby.

In addition, there is a considerable amount of expressed wooden structure here, all of it stained the color of mahogany to give this space its formal mien. Every piece of furniture is rare, early Stickley; perhaps the rarest is the small, flower-shaped “Celandine” tea table in front of the fireplace. The table lamps were made in Stickley’s metal shop and they are all exceedingly rare.

The Friedmans’ taste for local artists is also evident in this room. The picture over the fireplace is by the Pittsburgh painter Will Hyette, and dates to the 1910s, and the two landscapes — one above a circa 1902 Stickley bookcase and the other above a circa 1902 Stickley fall-front desk — are the work of Christian Walter. Because these paintings depict the Allegheny Mountains around Ligonier, a town southeast of Pittsburgh, Kathy says that she and Ed like calling their living room the “Allegheny room.”

Now turn right and walk into the dining room. There is a third fireplace here, faced with matte green Teco or Teco-like tiles that are different from those in the entrance hall and living room fireplaces. The extensive woodwork is oak — built-in china cabinets, door and window frames, wainscoting and ceiling beams. Ed points out that oak makes the room feel less formal than the living room next door.

4The Friedmans call this space the “Monongahela room,” in honor of two nocturnes painted by the local master Aaron Gorson. William Gerdtz calls Gorson “Pittsburgh’s premier master of the local industrial scene,” and goes on to say, “Gorson was particularly adept at night scenes combining the fiery glow of industry with a pervasive Whistlerian atmosphere. The artist spoke of his fascination with the white flames and crystal sparks of metal seen against the black hills and shadowed waters of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.” The Friedmans share that fascination, and recall that several of the mills painted by Gorson still lit the night sky when they first moved to Pittsburgh.

Now let’s go upstairs. The Stickley single-door washstand in the hallway — draped with an embroidered Arts and Crafts textile — is almost certainly one of a kind.

A cabinet like this endlessly fascinates Stickley collectors. Its frame-and-panel door construction, the bevel-edged boards of its sides, and the oversized rail at the top, are traits of Stickley’s early, circa 1902 furniture. But its round wooden knobs and the thin, shaped tenon ends that pierce the front legs are evidence that it was made later. It is one of those rarely seen special-order pieces, made specifically to fill some customer’s request.

Down the hall, in the second-floor library, there is a fireplace faced with white tiles, and on the walls, instead of oil paintings, there are framed Grueby, Van Briggle and Volkmar tiles. The fireplace in the master bedroom also has white tiles and the painting above it is another Will Hyette landscape. A like-new oak and webbed leather suitcase stand — cataloged by Stickley in 1902 as a “trunk rest” — is placed on the white-tiled hearth. As far as anyone knows, this is the only 1902 Stickley trunk rest in existence, and coming upon it at the end of a tour of the Friedmans’ house has caused more than one collector to turn the color of a Grueby tile.

The interior of the house is unified and harmonious, exactly the kind of domestic environment that, a hundred years ago, Arts and Crafts architects set out to create. As Kathy says, “It’s a very homey home.” Still, it is a home filled with beautiful objects and it gives the impression that the collection somehow materialized, perfectly, all at the same time. Of course, collections don’t happen like that; they demand years of persistent, single-minded effort. And the story of that effort, of how the Friedmans assembled this collection over many years, is as engrossing as the collection itself. As Ed often says, it is really a story about the people they’ve met along the way who helped shape their collecting over the decades.

The 1970s: Beginning to Collect

In the late 1960s, a handful of collectors living in California were buying Stickley furniture. In 1972, the year of the landmark Princeton exhibition, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876-1916,” a second wave of collectors began to appear. Ed and Kathy Friedman caught that wave in 1975. She was then in dental school and he was a textbook editor for the publishing company Random House. At the time, as Ed recalls, they were an aesthetically minded young couple, living in New York City, with a taste for beauty but very little money, and Ed made their first furniture. He describes that homemade furniture as “primitive, functional, modernist.”

“I’ve never been without a restoration project for the last 20 years,” Charlie laughs. “My current bungalow has been the most well-thought-out and well-designed smaller house that I’ve ever done. When I bought this one I decided I needed to stay somewhere for a while and I knew that the redevelopment of Monrovia was on the upswing; 10 years later, it’s in full bloom.”

Then, on a visit to Gloucester, Mass., in 1975, they found their first piece of Stickley, though they didn’t know it was Stickley at the time. It was a big, solid library table, made of chestnut and composed entirely of right angles and straight lines. Ed, the amateur furniture maker, was overwhelmed by the construction of this piece because, he says, “It was put together with all kinds of joints that I knew I couldn’t make.”

5Ed and Kathy paid $40 for the table, and that low price intrigued them too: what was this furniture, they wondered, that could be bought for less than the value of its wood? Once they owned that table, says Ed, “we loved the style. We were hooked.” And they began searching diligently for the intriguing, mysterious furniture that they initially called “straight stuff,” but that they soon learned to call by its right name: Stickley.

Within a few years they met Elaine and Robert Dillof, who had already assembled a major collection of Stickley furniture, Grueby pottery and other Arts and Crafts objects. (The Dillof collection is profiled in “A Crafted House,” Issue No. 30.) “We were blown away by their collection,” remembers Ed. “We thought we’d never live in a place like theirs.” Ed says that Elaine became their “godmother,” teaching them invaluable lessons about how to collect and giving them their first Collecting Rule: look constantly, and always look for the best.

At this time they also met Don Magner, an eccentric, ebullient Dickensian figure whose Brooklyn antiques shop was usually a near-impenetrable jumble but who always had a few Stickley gems tucked in there somewhere. The Friedmans became close friends with Magner, and Ed calls him “a major early influence on our collecting.” The L. & J.G. Stickley Prairie settle now in the Friedmans’ library came from Magner’s shop in the late 1970s. By this time they had learned their second Collecting Rule: always be ready to extend yourself financially and overpay for great things. For years, says Ed, “We were continually ‘in debt’ to our collection.”

In 1978, the Friedmans moved due north from New York City to the Hudson Valley town of Millbrook, Kathy entering a dental practice and Ed becoming a picker/dealer by day and in the evenings going to night school. They befriended the three or four other pickers who were also scouring the Northeast in search of Stickley, and from one, Steve Lapidus, they bought two early Stickley Morris chairs that are now in the living room of their Pittsburgh home. One is a flat-arm Morris chair with traces of its original green finish — a great rarity because Stickley’s green stains fade in sunlight — and the other is a bow-arm Morris chair with a label from the Cobb-Eastman Company, Stickley’s first Boston distributor. “Steve had a refined eye,” says Ed, “and he taught me a lot.” At this time the Friedmans learned their third Collecting Rule: search for information. Except for the catalog of the Princeton exhibition, almost nothing had been published on Stickley yet. So early collectors were always on the lookout for copies of The Craftsman magazine and for original Stickley catalogs that they could photocopy and swap with one another, all of them trying hard to gather information.

Perhaps Ed and Kathy’s most important early mentor was the Key West Arts and Crafts dealer, the late Chris Elmore. “Chris was the first person I met who looked at the furniture intellectually,” recalls Ed. “He reviewed the whole range of 20th-century American decorative arts because he wanted to identify great work that was still overlooked. By the mid- to late-1970s he was convinced that Stickley’s true importance would eventually be recognized.” Ed continues: “Chris was a connoisseur. He was a stickler for condition and he was very discriminating.” Through lessons learned from Chris Elmore, Ed and Kathy became increasingly sophisticated collectors.

The 1980s: Building — and Honing — the Collection

6After a few years in Millbrook, Ed decided that he didn’t have what it takes to be a picker/dealer, because he couldn’t bear to part with some things. “I finally realized,” he says, “that I wanted to keep all the best things I found.” So the Friedmans moved to Pittsburgh. Kathy began practicing dentistry there and Ed went to medical school and eventually became a psychiatrist. They continued to be very active collectors, doing most of their buying in the area where they now live.

In 1982, at the Roycroft Inn in East Aurora, N.Y., Ed met Arts and Crafts collector Stephen Gray, and a few months later he and Kathy bought their majestic eight-leg Stickley sideboard from him. (Stephen Gray’s collection is profiled in “Bungalow in the Sky,” Issue No. 33.) Steve, too, has become a long-time friend and mentor, teaching them what may be the single most important Collecting Rule: focus. As Ed tells it, “Steve would come into our house and tell us what to weed out to hone and refine our collection. He taught us to be less eclectic and to focus on the great, early furniture.”

The 1990s: Shifts in Emphasis

In the 1990s, after living more than a decade in Pittsburgh, the Friedmans began collecting paintings by Gorson, Hyette and Walter, the early-20th-century western Pennsylvania landscape artists whose work is now found throughout their house. Though they continued to bring home Stickley furniture, they also started buying more metalwork: table lamps made by the great California Arts and Crafts artisan Dirk van Erp and also the sinuously shaped candlesticks made in Chicago by the self-taught master, Robert Jarvie.

7In collecting van Erp and Jarvie they have once again turned to friends, in this instance Beth Cathers and Robert Kaplan, whose connoisseurship has helped the Friedmans find their way into what was for them a new and engrossing area of Arts and Crafts collecting. (The Cathers and Dembrosky gallery is profiled in Issue No. 40 and Robert Kaplan’s home is visited in “The Passionate Collector,” Issue No. 41.)

Over time, the Friedmans’ emphasis has shifted from finding more things to finding better ones. They also look for pieces that will fit comfortably into their home. “I like great objects,” says Ed, “but the collection is not just objects. It’s also meant to create a visually harmonious interior.” The collection, too, is evidence not just of the Friedmans’ knowledge and taste but of their extraordinary perseverance. And it is a tangible record of the many friends and mentors they came to know during the nearly 30 years they’ve been collecting.

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