As the Wheeler turns

Noir Bedroom at the Roxbury.

“Probably no art has so few masters as that of decoration,” wrote the long-heralded “mother of interior design” Candace Wheeler. Born in the Delaware County seat of Delhi, Wheeler was locally famous for her role in starting the Onteora Park development of summer homes, which shifted the way that the world looked on our native mountains. “Insofar as the principles of decoration are derived from other arts, they can be acquired by everyone; but an exquisite feeling in their application is the distinguishing quality of the true decorator.”

Wheeler bristled at being behind-the-times as a girl, but then brought her native Catskills’ rural sense of inherent style to bear on her design principles, which heralded the instinctive and vernacular over the prettified and presumptive. She was one of those game-changers who brought attention to the natural gifts – and earning potential – of all women, setting the stage for later suffrage and the ascendancy of popular tastes.

But she also set into motion the idea of closed communities via her own rarefied mountaintop Onteora Park: a land of stone-and-timber “cottages” around a central, meadow-surrounded lake and clubhouse/theater. There, she was joined by the likes of Hans Brinker author Mary Mapes Dodge, Mark Twain and countless other major thinkers and doers of her day. But from the start, Wheeler stressed the need to keep mornings free of socialization, the better to retain the inspired work to which she felt that all inspiration must lead. That was the purpose of her idyllic retreat.