Art And History On Morningside Drive

Right now, a Guggenheim Museum exhibit features the works of Vasily Kandinsky.

For years though, a Westport estate has had a connection to both the Guggenheim and Kandinsky.

It can be yours for just $4.995 million.

Main house at 77 Morningside Drive South.

The 77 Morningside Drive South property includes a guest house and barn. All told, there are 19 rooms, 8 bedrooms, 8 full baths, and 2 half-baths.

Plus a pool and tennis court.

Sure, you say, I’d love to buy it. But what if the neighbors suddenly cut down trees, or build an ugly McMansion next door?

No worries! The 3 acres of land is surrounded by a 7-acres preserve, owned by Aspetuck Land Trust. You pay for 3 acres, but really get 10.

Aerial view of 77 Morningside Drive South.

The history is as interesting as the property itself. Dating to 1870, and called the Sherwood-Grout house, the original home was bought by Hilla Von Rebay.

Born in Alsace in 1890, her father was a Prussian general. She attended private school in Paris, then dove into the bohemian lifestyles of Munich, Berlin and Paris, before spending time with the Dadaists in Zurich. She had numerous affairs, including one with Hans Arp.

Hilla von Rebay, around 1915.

In 1926, she came to the US. She was soon known as one of the most powerful but also most eccentric women in the art world.

She met Solomon Guggenheim, who was 30 years older and one of America’s wealthiest men. She inspired his interest in art, and advised him on what became his noted and extensive collection,

The pair — with Guggenheim’s wife — traveled throughout Europe. They met Marc Chagall, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian, and bought hundreds of pieces of art.

Guggenheim and von Rebay rented an apartment at New York’s Plaza Hotel, and put on art exhibits there. They formed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1939, and planned a new building on Central Park.

The baroness was influential in selecting Frank Lloyd Wright (who called her a “superwoman”) to design what became the Guggenheim Museum. It took nearly 2 decades to complete, due to problems with finding a proper site, revisions of plans, and material and labor shortages during and after World War II.

Hilla von Rebay with a model of the proposed Guggenheim Museum, 1946.

Von Rebay — who had a 1-bedroom studio at Carnegie Hall — bought the Greens Farms property. She named it Franton Court, in honor of her parents, Franz and Toni. Every year, tulips were shipped from the Netherlands.

She replaced a living room wall with plate glass, offering a full view of the gardens she had created. She hung paintings by famed artists throughout the house, as well as a Calder mobile.

Von Rebay converted the barn into an enormous studio. Her artist friends — Chagall, Kandinsky, Leger and others — came to work there.

Hilla von Rebay in Westport in the 1940s, with Rudolf Bauer, Fernand Legerand and others.

Five years before she died, Von Rebay made plans for a foundation. She recommended that her house be maintained as an art gallery and research facility, so her collection, library and other modern art material could be available to visitors. She also wanted her then-14-acres of land to become a wildlife sanctuary.

The town nixed the museum. So the Guggenheim Museum now owns her paintings — some of which are shown in the current Kandinsky exhibit — along with 10,000 letters.

But the preserve remains.

Unlike some older properties, Von Rebay’s home has been well cared for. With 10-foot ceilings and large rooms, the flow feels very modern.

Kandinskys, Chagalls and Klees no longer hang on the walls. But 77 Morningside Drive South has just about everything else you could want.

Including one of the most fascinating, and little-known, histories in town.

(For more information on 77 Morningside Drive South, click here.) 

10 responses to “Art And History On Morningside Drive

  1. India van Voorhees

    Why on earth would we nix the museum? That would have been in the 1960s! Is there any information on why that decision was made?

    • I don’t know, and I’d never heard that story before. Maybe because it was in a residential neighborhood?

    • Nancy Birderrock

      Westport also nixed museum idea for the James Earle & Laura Gardin Fraser home/studio on North Avenue, also in the late 60’s. Some people just have no vision!

    • Bill Strittmatter

      Not sure why anyone is particularly surprised. Vision be damned, Google NIMBY and Westport, CT is the first hit.

      Could have protected this house/property in perpetuity with likely limited impact on neighborhood but nope – don’t want possibility of traffic or, you know, “others” wandering into town. Goodness knows, they might have even wanted to stop at the beach after visiting the museum.

      Will be amusing if a developer buys it and threatens to 8-30G the property if the town doesn’t grant permission to subdivide and build a couple of McMansions on the lot.

  2. Dorrie Barlow Thomas

    I stayed in that house once or twice around 1978 or 1979 during some 6th grade slumber parties. A friend in school lived there…I have no idea why/how her parents scored this crazy huge house (some kind of short term rental I’m guessing?!) but it was incredibly cool with all its out buildings and beautiful gardens and trees. A memorable thing was sneaking downstairs late at night to see the vast ballroom. I was astounded: who has a ballroom in their house?!!
    Her name was Danielle (Dada) Mahr and her parents did not speak English, but I don’t what country they were from. I don’t know their story at all, but possibly they had a connection to Von Rebay?!

  3. Bob Weingarten

    Just a bit of updated history. The house was initially built in c.1855 by Walter Sherwood from profits made from onion farming. The house remained in the Sherwood family, many different members until 1907 when sold to Edward Grout, an attorney and politician from Brooklyn. He owned the propert until 1937. The property was sold to Hilda Von Rabay in 1939.

  4. How can I share this on FB? FASCINATING!!

  5. Philip Eliasoph

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane— however
    for the record:

    Wassily Kandinsky never crossed the Atlantic. He was not hanging out in Rebay’s Greens farms salon as you incorrectly state.

    After the closing of the Dessau Bauhaus by stormtrooper Nazi thugs in 1933, Nina and Wassily emigrated to Paris. The father of Non-Objectivist painting died of pneumonia in Nazi occupied Paris in the winter of 1944. Rebay was one of modern art’s visionary patrons promoting avant-gardism ahead of her time. She was Westport’s role model for Peggy Guggenheim – but one decade earlier.

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