A working farm, woodland trails on 80 acres, an observatory, interactive art gallery and planetarium make up the eclectic list of wonders at The Stamford Museum and Nature Center. Its lesser-known, stately neo-Tudor mansion, which houses galleries, offices and party space, has its own fanbase, says Rosa Portell, Curator of the Collections. "When people come to see it, I try to show them the original parts of the mansion, particularly the ground floor, which was very grand, like the great houses of England," she says.
The 10,000 square foot asymmetrical mansion was the summer home of designer and New York department store owner Henri Willis Bendel. A Louisiana native, he began his meteor-like fashion career by making hats. In 1912, he opened his eponymous department store, on West 57th Street. Always an innovator, he was the first to import Coco Chanel's clothes to the United States from Paris.
His dream of building a summer home in North Stamford was realized in 1929 by architect Perry Barker. Portell says, "Bendel wanted Barker to base the design on two British manor houses, Shoppenhangers and Ockwells, two Tudor mansions located in Maidenhead, England." European hallmarks such as lead-framed glass windows, half-timbered walls, gargoyles, a slate roof and chimneys were added.
An Italianate garden, says Portell, then considered de rigueur, was cultivated as well. It was decorated with sculptures of horses (circa 1850), lions (1875) and a fountain imported from Italy and reconstructed stone by stone. Other sculptures, representing the four seasons and "Ruth," by Giovanni-Battista Lombardi, graced the grounds.At the end of his life, according to Portell, Bendel became somewhat reclusive, but he always opened the mansion at Christmas for a lavish party. "He wanted to give back to the community," she says. His time there was short. He died in 1936, after which his heirs sold off nearly everything, including the ornate mantel pieces. Stamford Museum took over the mansion in 1955. Eventually, with the help of donors including publishing company Conde Nast, the statues were restored and returned to its grounds.Now, a photo album on the mansion's first floor and a website slide show give glimpses of its original splendor. Luckily, besides its serene setting, the Bendel gallery and great hall still retain their original flavor. And, for curiosity seekers, Portell has one more room to show off. "I also always take them to the ground floor bathroom, "she says. "It has the most magnificent, original arts and crafts tile." Information on visiting Stamford Museum and Nature Center or holding an event there is available on its website.
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