Albert Hadley, Want, and the Comfort of Things


If you don’t know right away that something is something you want or can use,” Mr. Hadley answers firmly, “you shouldn’t buy it. What I have, I have, and if I didn’t have it I’d be happy with much less.
— Albert Hadley, in conversation with House & Garden

"Albert Hadley, president of Parish-Hadley, which is to decorating what Mouton-Rothschild is to claret, says he's not a good houseguest. By which he doesn't mean to imply that he stays up all night and burns cigarette holes in the rug. To see Mr. Hadley-small, neat, gazing mildly at the world from behind round spectacles-is to know that's hardly his style. Rather, Mr. Hadley is the kind who likes to keep his own time, move at his own pace, and sleep in his own bed. That's why the place he bought near Tarrytown, New York, some years ago is a 'godsend. I spent a lot of weekends in the city, working. But the house, once I got it, took over my life and everything else disappeared.'

A farmhouse built about 1850 and sitting on a knoll, it wasn't at all what Mr. Hadley had in mind. 'I'd always thought of having a much simpler, more classic box, perhaps on flat land. But here was this perfectly lovely house, so I couldn't resist.

'I remember every detail of seeing it and falling in love and thinking it an enormous challenge. No, an enormous opportunity, I should say, to do the things I like most-to create order and the atmosphere that I love.' What is the atmosphere that Mr. Hadley loves? In three words: peaceful, private, precise.

'I'm rather an orderly person and I don't like clutter. I like things, but I'm very interested in the juxtaposition of objects and the way materials look together. I love the excitement of discovery, but I'm not a collector. What I have, I have, and if I didn't have it I'd be happy with much less.'"

"Soon after Mr. Hadley moved in 'and got the land in better order' (order is clearly Mr. Hadley's favorite noun), he decided that the house needed a wider porch. He added one, with steps leading to a flagstone terrace; other than that, there was little to do but rebuild the chimneys.

'Inside was no problem at all. I had the furniture-some in storage, some I'd let people borrow, some family things I brought up from Tennessee-and I chose to keep everything as simple as possible.' The house is white from top to bottom; some floors were sanded, cleaned, and left natural; those that weren't were painted dark green. Plain white muslin skirts the bottom half of each window because Mr. Hadley didn't want to impede the light and air and because he isn't too fond of curtains anyway. 'Perhaps I shouldn't say that,' he murmurs.

An ordinary weekend starts Friday afternoon when Mr. Hadley goes up alone to work the house's several acres. He loves to work outside but he is not, he says emphatically, a flower gardener. 'I like ferns and such.' Entertaining is mostly Saturday or Sunday lunch, usually on the porch. 'I'm not awfully domestic. I manage a bit but it's not my great passion.'

If by 'domestic' Mr. Hadley means being a dab hand with a dust cloth and bread dough, he probably doesn't deserve the adjective. On the other hand, he's been fascinated by things pertaining to the home all his life.

Albert Hadley grew up near Nashville on farmland that had belonged to his grandfather, in a house that was built by his parents. They had very few neighbors in the beginning and he resented, he says, every new house that went up. That may be why, when he's describing the joy he takes in his farmhouse, several words keep repeating themselves: 'the privacy... the isolation.' His parents were interested in furniture-his mother was a collector and he himself was 'always interested in fashion, how tables were set, what people wore.' He might have trained as an architect, 'but at the time I thought it was too much engineering, too much mathematics and all the things I'm not exactly...' Instead, after the army, he went to New York and Parsons School of Design. He was there for four years and stayed on to teach; eventually, in 1962, he went to work with Sister Parish, whose partner he is still."

"Given Mr. Hadley's travels in the realms of gold it is pleasant to hear that he found several of his own treasures by beating the Sanitation Department to a pickup. 'The writing table with the blue cloth top I found on the street, and the tables by the beds in two of the guest rooms. And once [Mr. Hadley is visibly warming to his subject] I was walking on an uptown street, saw a glimmer of gold in the trash, and out came this beautiful Regency gilt bracket.' Finding a Chippendale sofa just before it was to be turned into landfill was especially memorable. After being recovered it was 'wonderful.'

Mr. Hadley is not only lucky in his walks, he is lucky in his friends, many of whom seem to spend a lot of time saying, 'Ooh, just the thing for Albert.' (Sister Parish's finding 'just the thing for Albert' is how he acquired his farmhouse: she steered him to it.) He has a closetful of such things, and what he doesn't use he passes on. 'There's a certain life about objects, I think, and the life goes on and on.' A copper tray and candlestick, though, will stay forever. His mother gave them to him many years ago, saying, 'I bought these just for you.' So will two circus drawings from a series by Byron Browne. The first he bought; Van Day Truex, the president of Parsons and his mentor, gave him its mate. 'I couldn't have had a better present.'

Mr. Hadley's best present to his friends and clients is, of course, his taste. 'Tell me,' asks a visitor, thinking to get a few tips, 'do you have any one set of rules to design by?'

'Well,' he replies, 'I respect enormously the time and place of any architecture, and how one furnishes it depends on what it says. Also, there's a continuity to one's taste. If you really like things they all tend to be of the same spirit and they all work together.'

'If you have to brood about something, then,' his visitor says, remembering a mirror framed in wood painted with wildflowers and a bird in flight and possibly still in residence at an antiques shop, 'maybe you shouldn't get it?'

'If you don’t' know right away that something is something you want or can use,' Mr. Hadley answers firmly, 'you shouldn't buy it.'

Ah, mirror, farewell."

ALL IMAGES AND TEXT TAKEN FROM HOUSE & GARDEN'S BEST IN DECORATION, 1987, INTERVIEWER AND PHOTOGRAPHER UNNAMED