If antiques could talk, we’d hear a thousand tales from this historic Boulder home furnished with antiques the homeowners have collected over a lifetime.
Photos by Ron Forth
Not just anyone knows what a pole screen is—or even what it does. But Donn and Kathy do, and when they got a tip that one was up for auction in Indiana, they jumped in their car and made a beeline for that state.
As fate would have it, another antiques hound had sniffed out the same item, and Donn and Kathy arrived just in time to hear the gavel slam down. As the screen left the showroom, the couple could see it was an excellent specimen, with a needlepoint design that featured an eagle and 13 stars.
Also called a fire screen, a pole screen is like a standing lamp but instead of a bulb, it has a flat, oval shield that protects your face from the sparks of an open hearth. The pole screen was a must-have item in colonial days, and for Donn and Kathy it was a must-have antique for their home in Mapleton Hill’s Historic District. After more than 40 years of collecting antiques, the screen was the one item they felt their home, built around 1900, lacked.
“I’m still thinking about that fire screen,” Kathy said, on the long drive back to Boulder. Donn was too. So he got on the phone with the auctioneer, who got in touch with the buyer, who then became a seller, and Donn and Kathy are now the owners of a 1780s pole screen. It stands by their hearth, which is also home to “Bradley,” a portrait of an unknown colonial man who joined the family almost 50 years ago, as well as a couple of Staffordshire mantel dogs. On the other side of the room is a pine tavern table, which, Kathy says, “was one of our first big purchases nearly 50 years ago; we were spending the farm” for the $200 asking price.
Along with the pole screen, virtually every antique in the couple’s immaculate, 3,200-square-foot foursquare house has a story to tell. The house alone is beautiful, too. No major improvements—the sort that “update” a historic home by removing all signs of its history—were inflicted on it. The house still feels as it did more than 100 years ago—gracious, but not fussy, with modest rooms, heart-of-pine floors and white trim—the perfect place to house antiques. Every house the couple has owned had a similar aesthetic, Donn says; all were comfortable, and all were steeped in history. So it’s no surprise that Donn is a history buff, in addition to an antiques collector. “Living in a home full of antiques is like living with a slice of history,” he says. “I’m somewhat transported back in time.” Donn concentrates on American antiques, with a few English pieces thrown in, because “it means something to me, knowing that similar items were used in Williamsburg, for instance. And, it’s just fun living with it all.”
Fun? With all those breakables, or at least valuables?
Yes, he says. The antiques aren’t museum-sequestered; they’re being used—carefully and with respect, but used, nonetheless. The dining room has a corner cupboard full of redware and Bennington pottery, and the dining table is a very worn, pine trestle antique.
Worn antiques don’t bother Donn, though. He hasn’t restored, refinished or hardly even waxed the home’s most serious pieces. “They haven’t been messed with,” he says. “They’re old and crazed, and even grungy” from wear. Colonial farmers weren’t tiptoeing around their highboys, so why should he? Take a look at the couple’s “six-month room”—a screened porch between the house and garage used in seasonal weather. The space sports informal rag rugs, twig furniture, stoneware and a flagstone floor. The whole look is “very country, very primitive,” Donn says.
Donn and Kathy’s extensive collection was gradually acquired. “We’ve bought a piece here and a piece there,” Donn says, “and then they blend together.” Yet, a few rooms have themes. The living room is entirely furnished as a New England colonial room, right down to the tea caddies—apple- and pear-shaped lockboxes for storing a family’s tea supply (the lock kept servants out of the good stuff).
The parlor is a bit more refined with a highboy, Staffordshire statuary, and a baby grand piano that Kathy plays often and well. The breakfast room is “country,” with a cobalt-blue-painted stoneware display. Thanks to Kathy’s choices, the room’s painted wall treatment mirrors the stoneware. The country theme spills over to the kitchen, where a copper countertop highlights copper utensils on display.
A 1738 clock that once had wooden gears occupies the upstairs landing. The gears have been replaced so the clock keeps perfect time, but the housing and face are original issue. The housing even has its original faux grain-painted finish. The pine housing was considered too plain, so it was painted to make it look something like mahogany.
The Thrill of the Hunt
While some guys go to ball games, Donn visits estate sales, auctions and stores just to see the antiques. If you don’t go, you won’t know if something special is there, he says. “You’ve got to get out and beat the bushes. I get more satisfaction in that than in bringing home new pieces.”
To keep his collection fresh, Donn occasionally trades pieces, but he’s not into antiquing solely for investment purposes. He’s pleased, of course, when their pieces gain value, and many have done so over 40-plus years of collecting. Their 1950s Verona Sunvold lamps with handmade crewel shades sold for $300 20 years ago; today they sell for $1,500 and up, and Donn and Kathy have at least four in everyday use.
An avid local collector, Donn has spent more than half his life acquiring antiques for his home. Here are his suggestions for neophyte antiquers.
❆ Elysian Fields Estate Auctions of Niwot (elysianfieldsauctions.com) offers antiques auctions every six weeks; beginners can leave checkbooks at home and just learn their way around the field by attending and watching the pros.
❆ Learning to de-acquire is essential; otherwise you may find yourself living in a jumble of the wonderful and the moth-eaten.
❆ Build a relationship with an antiques dealer. Denver, Niwot and Lyons are all good places to find professionals. Donn appreciates his relationship with John Boulware of John Boulware Antiques in Denver. “I’ve been a good customer, and John has become a good friend of mine,” he says.
❆ “Never, ever buy an antique table of any kind without looking under it to see if the top has been replaced,” Donn says. Tops and bottoms can be “married,” which reduces their value a great deal. However, he and his wife Kathy have a married highboy in their parlor and love telling of its mixed provenance: The married pieces are “from the same period, circa 1780 New England,” Donn says, “but they were definitely made by two different craftsmen.”
❆ Buy the best specimen you can afford. If you have $300, spend it on one nice thing, not on three so-so things.
❆ Although electronic antiques sales are booming, Donn is not keen on buying over the Internet. “How can you look underneath a table on a computer screen?” he says.
❆ Most antiques show best in an off-white room, which focuses attention on the pieces, instead of the room. A plain background also reduces visual clutter.
❆ Acquire a minimum of three things to specialize in, such as candlesticks, baskets or tea caddies. “Two is one short of a collection,” Donn says.
❆ Donn is not a fan of buying complete collections: “The fun’s over because the hunt’s over,” he says. “Why have an instant collection that represents someone else’s efforts? It’s much more enjoyable to build your own.”