In the summer of 2012, there was much alarm among fans of the iconic American composer Charles Ives. The house in West Redding, Connecticut that Ives built in 1912 as a summer retreat – including the studio where he composed some of his greatest works – was for sale, for a reported $1.5 million. Members of the Charles Ives Society, a non-profit devoted to advancing his music, tried frantically to get the money together to buy it. But before they could work out a deal, Charles Ives Tyler, the composer's grandson, had sold the place to a couple from New York. Ives lovers feared the worst, and rumors flew about a tear-down, followed by a McMansion.
"That was never part of the plan," says John Moon. He became aware of the angst only after he and his wife Hee-Jung had put in a bid for the house. Moon says the brouhaha, which included a petition and articles in the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe and WQXR.org, "gave us a stronger sense of the import – of who Charles Ives was, and what he means to so many people."
Like Ives, the Moons wanted to escape from Manhattan on the weekends (he is a private equity investor, and she suspended a career as a lawyer to raise their two sons). After a real estate broker took them to a home in Redding that was originally owned by Mark Twain’s daughter, she showed them the Ives property. "We fell in love with it immediately," said John. "[It was] exactly what we wanted. Low key, pastoral, just beautiful." They closed on the property in September 2012.
In an exclusive interview this week, the couple said they are preserving elements of the house that made it distinctive: plaster walls in the public areas, a sleeping porch on the second floor, even the arbor where Ives and his wife Harmony posed for a rare photo. John Moon says he asked their contractor to save the vines that are faintly visible in that picture, "so that we could actually have the original grape vines hanging from the arbor after it had been restored." Trees to rebuild the arbor will also come from the grounds. "We have a landscape architect who's an Ives fan. He's going around the forest to try and create the landscape the way it was, and the way the forest looked 100 years ago when Ives was living on that property."
James Sinclair, the executive editor of the Charles Ives Society, has been pleased with the outcome, calling the Moons "wonderful buyers with real sympathy for the historical importance of the house."
Sinclair, who was instrumental in the American Academy of Arts and Letters recreation of the Charles Ives studio (which opens to the public on March 6), admits that it would have been a stretch for the Ives Society to buy and renovate the place. The house had been added onto, but it had never been winterized, and parts of the property had fallen into disrepair. Insulation, a new electrical system and other modern necessities meant stripping the walls down to the lathe, but Sinclair says "from the outside ... you'd have no idea that significant improvements were being made.
"They have not just [hired] renovation architects, they've got restoration architects – historical, sensitive architectural work going on, so things are improved without changing." (The owners are, however, building an addition to the back of the home, extending the room that had been Ives's study.)
An extra bonus? "We've become fans," said John Moon, who admits that they knew very little about Ives before walking through his house. In the last year and a half, Ives lovers of all stripes have entered their lives, including a pianist who was performing the Concord Sonata, which Ives completed in the house. One part of that sonata calls for a cluster chord to be played using a piece of wood, exactly 14¾ inches long. Moon says that when the pianist learned that they were renovating, he sent "a beautiful handwritten letter asking us for a piece of wood from Charles Ives's home where he wrote that great music. And we of course were tickled pink, and were happy to oblige."
Hee-Jung Moon also found an important spiritual connection. The last job that Ives held as a professional musician was at Central Presbyterian Church in New York, which is the church the Moons attend.
The Moons are talking with Sinclair about potential collaborations with the Ives Society, though they are not yet certain what that might entail. Still, there is one thing that might possibly rankle Ives aficionados about the new owners of his house: they're both Harvard graduates and Ives was a devout Yalie.
A replica of the studio from Charles Ives's Redding home will be on display at The American Academy of Arts and Letters beginning Thursday March 6. Below, James Sinclair talks about the re-creation process:
Here Sinclair talks about the process of cleaning out the West Redding home:
Photo: Halley Erskine