The House, the Architect and the Builder
How did Keller come to commission such a prestigious architect as Charles E. Brigham to design his house? By 1907, Keller was a member of the Shelter Island Yacht Club and therefore summering on Shelter Island and mingling with the summer folks of the Heights. Everything we can glean about Keller was that he was an exuberantly enthusiastic, charming and ingratiating man. He was a salesman.
Brigham’s sister, Maria Brigham, lived on Winthrop Road and he was known to visit her there. He would have had Boston friends staying at the Manhansett House.
Brigham was then 67 years old and had achieved success in his field, designing such structures as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Church of the Advent on Brimmer Street, the Boston Young Men’s Christian Association, the First Church of Christian Science, a wing of Bullfinch’s 1795-1798 Massachusetts State House which houses the Hall of Flags, the Maine State House, the first four buildings of the Foxboro State Hospital, St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Dorchester, and many of the public buildings of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, including the Town Hall, the Rogers Memorial High School, the Millicent Library, the Tabitha Inn, and the Unitarian Church. He also designed a number of private homes.
Brigham was perhaps intrigued by the ebullient Keller to design a house for him, and a year later he would design at least three additional cottages for Keller on Winthrop Road. Brigham died at age 85 on July 25, 1925 on Shelter Island while living with his sister. He was an uncle of the artist Walter Cole Brigham, who was creating his unique stained glass and shell compositions in 1907, and the great-uncle of Walter Brigham who lives on Winthrop Road today.
Whatever the incentive, Brigham’s house at 10 Bay Avenue is today an important house in American domestic architecture.
The builder Reeve was reported to have said that it was the finest house he ever built.
It is three stories over a cement and brick basement. The first floor consists of a hall that runs from front to back, a library, dining room, and kitchen. Around the entire west and south side of the house, overlooking the bay is a covered porch which is the living room of this summer home. The library is perhaps reminiscent of an Italian chapel. In Keller’s day the dining room featured a moose head over the fireplace, as one certainly found in Teddy Roosevelt’s home. The kitchen is oversized and includes a butler’s pantry and a second pantry. In addition to the front stairs, there are back stairs that run from the basement to the third floor.
The second floor has four bedrooms and two baths. There is also a small porch off of the south-west bedroom. The second floor stair enclosure as it unfolds is charmingly elegant. The full third floor has a small bedroom for a maid and a bath and a large paneled room over the two west bedrooms.
The carpentry work is exquisite with a great deal of attention to detail, from the scroll work on the front door to the spindles on the stairs and the double ones on the west porch. We know the carpenter was Peter Schweinsburg (1888-1974), because he signed his name to the inside of the side porch stairs.
There have been no major structural changes to the house. Soon after it was built, and while the architect was still alive, the exterior was changed from a Tudor to a Shingle style. The ice box remains intact with its outside pass-through, and a modern refrigerator has been added to the kitchen. One bathroom has been thoroughly modernized, but the others remain essentially as they were built. Wallpaper on the second floor has periodically been refreshed. And, the ceilings have been painstakenly repaired. But, what a visitor saw in 1908 is basically what a visitor sees today.
The woods in the paneling are exotic throughout. The six fireplaces are each unique to the rooms for which they were designed. And, most important, the friezes by Nicholas Briganti (1861 - 1944) in the library (now living room) and in the dining room, painted and signed by him in 1908, are extraordinary. They are painted on canvas, and, therefore, it may be that Briganti created them in his studio and supervised their installation, or he may never have come to Shelter Island.
In 1908, Brigham was living in and working out of Watertown, Massachusetts and Briganti was located nearby. There may be Massachusetts houses still intact in which they collaborated, but we have, as yet, found none. This house may be the only one still existing where these two artists worked together.
The Briganti friezes are of particular interest because of the subject matter, clarity, composition, and color. They are brilliant in their execution and their present condition is a tribute to the house’s owners.
The library frieze is of Venice and the dining room frieze is of the Plains Indians. Our research has not answered why the Kellers choose the particular subject matters. We have tried to connect Keller with a man of the same name who was an Indian agent to the Crow Indians of Montana following the Civil War, but without success.