All is Calm
April 30, 2012
Text by Rob Brinkley Photography by John Gruen Produced by Kyle Hoepner
“When the light catches their wings,” says Malcolm Rogers, referring to some energetic little creatures that flit about his two-story, white-clapboard home, “it’s as if you can see them moving.”
Rogers, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, isn’t speaking of hummingbirds or fireflies, though thousands of the latter converge each summer to dart and glint against the night sky above the lawns around his house. Instead, he is waxing rhapsodic about the bees—hundreds of them—printed on a particular Arts and Crafts wallpaper in a particular bedroom of his house. These aren’t just any bees: this colony sports silvered wings that catch the gauzy light streaming through the room’s amply scaled windows. And, for the record, this isn’t just any bedroom: it was occupied for several summers in the 1940s by a certain widowed empress, forced to flee her beloved Europe. (One has to imagine that she was lulled into comfort by the fireflies in the night sky. The bees? Those were installed by Rogers less than a decade ago.)
This storied house, which has stood for almost 200 years along a pastoral common in the tiny Massachusetts town of Royalston, has countless chapters to go. Built in 1819, it was first a parsonage house for Royalston, a tranquil spot northwest of Boston with views of nearby Tully Mountain and a population today of just barely more than 1,200. Rogers’s house “acts as a keystone to the entry to the Common,” he says, a green space around which sit a dozen or so houses, plus the town hall and the library.
Rogers likes the trapped-in-time feeling. “It’s very quiet, very remote and hidden in the woods,” he says of the town. “It’s what in England would be called a hamlet.”
That aura is what most attracted the British-born Rogers, who, looking for a weekend getaway, found the house in 2003. It was, he says, “a rescue project,” unoccupied since the 1950s except by wasps, which had moved into almost every room. (Elegant illustrated bees are one thing; real stinging wasps, quite another.) An added two-story sleeping porch was about to collapse, and the house’s granite foundation and steps needed shoring and straightening. “I took pity on it,” Rogers says.
The inherently Georgian house had been “upgraded,” Rogers likes to say, facetiously, by a Boston architect in the 1930s who, he says, “Federal-ized it, making it a bit more elaborate.”
Rather than fully rewind to its original 1819 incarnation, Rogers nudged the house back to the 1920s, when Royalston was a summer getaway for the well-to-do. An incongruous Chinese Chippendale balustrade that once bordered a rooftop was let go. The sleeping porch came down, replaced by a single-story version that graciously wraps one corner. The myriad tweaks and clarifications took two years, and, in the end, Rogers had a calmer, quieter house, its inherent attractions fully intact. “There is a lovely harmony to the place,” he says, “in the rooms’ proportions, and the relationships of the rooms to their windows.”
And then there’s that pedigree. The house’s most illustrious residents thus far have been Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Bullock, Jr., he a financier and scion of a prominent Royalston family. It was Calvin Bullock who is purported to have given many of the homes around the Common their nicknames: “The Columns,” “Lightning Rods” and, in the case of this house, “La Bastille.”
“Nobody knows why,” Rogers says, laughing. But everybody in town knows La Bastille, especially for its most famous guest, the aforementioned Empress Zita, the last empress of Austria, the last queen of Hungary and the last queen of Bohemia. She was the widow of Emperor Karl, the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1916 to his abdication in 1918, who died in 1922 in exile in Portugal. Zita was a friend of the Bullocks, who hosted her and seven of her eight children for several summers at La Bastille after they fled their adopted Belgium in 1940 following a Nazi invasion.
Zita and her brood were “Europe’s most distinguished refugees,” said Life magazine in December 1940. “But up in Royalston, Massachusetts,” said the South Amboy Citizen newspaper that same month, “only a low white fence of wooden palings separates the last of the great Hapsburg families from the world.”
A white fence still fronts the Bastille today, a gateway to its twenty idyllic acres, part of which had been an eighteen-hole course designed by influential golfer Donald Ross. (“It’s now,” says Rogers, “rather a blueberry patch.”)
Once Rogers had the house sorted out, out-of-control blueberries notwithstanding, he turned to its interior decoration. Like the pace in Royalston, there was no hurry—at all. “It was a blank canvas,” he says, “furnished over time.”
Rogers dragged in finds from hither and yon, not from vaunted antiques dealers or important sources, but from junk shops and thrift shops. “At the Museum of Fine Arts,” he says, “we’re used to collecting and displaying masterpieces. At home? I have a budget.”
He does, though, admit to a double curse: “I’m an enthusiastic antiquer and a packrat.”
His collections include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prints (“They are everywhere,” he says) and patterned Victorian carpet balls, once used for indoor bowling games and which now march up the center hall’s staircase.
As in renovating the house, Rogers hasn’t stuck slavishly to one look or feel with its furnishings, though he did, as he puts it, try to “dramatize” certain rooms. The bedroom believed to be Empress Zita’s (“Tradition has it,” said the Royalston Community Newsletter in 2006, “she always slept in the room closest to Vienna”) is now Rogers’s interpretation of what an Arts and Crafts room of the 1920s may have been, down to the aforementioned bee wallpaper, designed in 1881 by forward-thinking designer Candace Wheeler.
Another room brims with sporting prints. “I thought a country house should have a room full of those,” Rogers says.
In a sitting room, instead of fussy settees or period sofas, a pair of contemporary chaise lounges cut any potential seriousness down a notch. All in all, it’s a comfortable, cozy refuge, not just for exiled empresses but also for Rogers, who comes out on the weekends for healthy doses of sheer quiet. “There’s a quality of audible stillness,” he says. “No cars, no street life to speak of.”
And, of course, there is the calming effect of gentle flickers of light—from the wood fires he builds and the candles he ignites, and from all those bees’ wings and fireflies, too. •