Courtesy of Jim Landon, June 2020
An invitation to join William Banks for luncheon at Bankshaven, his estate on the outskirts of Newnan, Georgia, was rarely declined. It seemed an experience not only of another era, but of another world. As first-time guests left the interstate highway and turned onto hardscrabble Highway 29, they could hardly be prepared for what awaited through the pristine white gates. Driving up the long and lumpy driveway to the crest of a rise, they were often halted by a snow-white peacock with tail spread in the middle of the drive – a novel sentry and introduction to the elegance beyond. Following successful negotiation with the peacock, which was sometimes lengthy, the astonishing 1820’s mansion came into view.
Set among towering and spreading oaks of an age approaching that of the house, the entry faced a circular drive bordered by magnolias and azaleas, which offered only a glimpse of a neoclassical statue hidden in the facing woods. A pair of separated single doors, one of which was blind and existed solely for symmetry, seemed incongruous under the grand, two-story semicircle of columns framing the entrance. This was, in fact, the rear facade of the residence. After choosing the correct door, the guest entered Bankshaven beneath a soaring, three-story spiral staircase and was greeted by a view, through the open double doors at the other end of the wide hall, of a boxwood hedge framing an emerald lawn sweeping down to a black lake, with only forest beyond. Depending on the season, the lake sported swans, mallards or Canada geese.
After recovering from the pleasant shock of such a spectacular entrance, the fortunate guest noticed two white-jacketed servers to the left of the entry to the dining room. Each held a small, silver tray – one with flutes of Champagne and one with a basket of cheese straws. Thus fortified, William’s guest was then whisked down the steps of the proper entrance to the home, again under a two-story rank of columns supporting an upper porch, and the tour of the gardens began. With luck the peacock rejoined the party and, if it was early April, the soft, lilac blossoms of the fifty-foot tall Japanese magnolia shadowed the kitchen wing to the right. To the left, beyond the bedroom addition to the original residence, steps led down to the fountain garden, an elongated oval of immaculate lawn and dark green boxwood borders, over which towered privet in full bloom and full scent. At the end of the oval sat the three-tier Italian marble fountain originally located at the Barnsley gardens near Rome, Georgia, which was a gift to William. To the left, a break in the hedges led to a more private space dominated by an immense styrax tree covered with white bells in early summer. On axis with the fountain was a smaller statue of a boy with a dolphin which William had discovered abandoned in the woods, apparently discarded during an earlier renovation of the gardens.
Returning to the fountain and passing through the opposing break in the boxwoods, the guest was greeted by a double set of curving steps leading down to a long, pristine swimming pool, bordered by hedges of tall, clipped hollies, at the far end of which was a fanciful pavilion with a striped tent surmounted by clusters of Prince of Wales feathers. Back through a gap in the hollies, William led his guest into an immense boxwood maze, originally moved years prior by his father (with each plant numbered on a schematic) from another garden. Flowering cherries overarched the maze, and on its edge sat a Gothic/Victorian folly of a gazebo, where the now-parched guest was delighted to find a silver bucket with chilled Champagne, ready to refill his glass.
A final garden awaited beyond a partial-brick wall bordering the box maze. This was a formal, walled flower garden with long brick walks bordered by beds of tulips, iris, violas, phlox, daisies and other annuals and perennials, all precisely placed according to William’s scheme and in most cases by his hand. The two sizeable center sections of this garden were planted, respectively, with roses and with peonies, all in shades of dark pink and red.
This exercise having created an appetite, William led his party back to the cool of the house and the delight of a formal lunch in the handsome dining room (or, for smaller parties, in the adjacent, more intimate breakfast room, where models of white cockatoos surveyed guests from perches in the niches). Luncheon was prepared by the talented Amanda Dean, who had overseen the kitchen at Bankshaven for decades. It was served on the highly polished, three-pedestal banquet table surmounted by an epergne filled alternately with roses or carnations arranged by William himself and sourced, as he once confided to me, from the Kroger in Newnan. Lunch might consist of a melon soup followed by sliced ham and perhaps chicken pie, with thoroughly cooked asparagus, and always Amanda’s superb biscuits. A glass of cold Pouilly-Fuissé accompanied this otherwise thoroughly Southern menu, and the finale could be a berry cobbler. Lucky guests at the larger luncheons often include professionals in the worlds of art and design – people who would appreciate the rare opportunity not just to marvel at, but even if only briefly, actually to live among William’s remarkable collections of American furniture and paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
William’s paintings and furniture are described in detail in the following pages of this catalogue, so I will not presume to list their outstanding features here. Suffice it to say that, although each is an exemplar of its type in its own right, it was the ensemble that created the extraordinary and possibly, even, romantic atmosphere of Bankshaven. Although William occasionally remarked that his taste perhaps ran to objects that were more refined than what would have been expected in the 1820’s in rural Georgia, there is no doubt that they appeared completely at home in the exquisite architecture of the Gordon-Banks House in its extraordinary setting near Newnan. It was William’s strict discipline in acquiring pieces of the period, and his unerring eye for excellence, that resulted in a harmonious collection. It is worth noting that virtually none of the furnishings were crafted in the American South, but rather in New England and the Middle Atlantic States. These were the sources of the elegant yet honest pieces with which owners of the new and impressive mansions of the South furnished their homes during this period.
Bankshaven, as it has come to be called, is more formally referred to as the Gordon-Banks House. Its first life was not in Newnan, but in the tiny town of Haddock, near Milledgeville, Georgia – the state’s first capital. It was constructed by Daniel Pratt for the newly wealthy Mr. John W. Gordon, who later became a Georgia legislator. Pratt was born in Temple, New Hampshire, was apprenticed to carpenters there, and at age twenty sailed to Savannah to seek greater opportunity. In Savannah he also served apprenticeships with carpenters and, perhaps more importantly, builders. In the 1820’s he sought work from the newly wealthy landowners farther from the coast, and arrived in Milledgeville. With no formal architectural training, but with the invaluable aid of Asher Benjamin’s manuals and pattern books, he designed and constructed at least a half dozen porticoed mansions and other buildings, including John Gordon’s home which he began in 1828. Pratt was also an inventor, and made improvements on the cotton gin, which led to his removal farther west again to Alabama where he established the town of Prattville and became Alabama’s most illustrious industrialist at that time.
Williams Banks saw the Gordon House on one of his rambles through the state, and remembered it immediately when he learned, after buying a house in Temple, New Hampshire (to be close to the mountains where he liked to ski), that Daniel Pratt was Temple’s most favorite son. That coincidence led to a greater interest in the Gordon House, which although still well maintained, had been occupied only seasonally by its owners for decades. After the death of William’s father, he suggested to his mother that they raze the family’s Tudor-style mansion on the outskirts of Newnan, for which the striking gardens had been designed by William Pauley, and dismantle and reconstruct the Gordon House on its site. The work began in 1968 and was completed in 1970, overseen by the preservationist architect Robert Raley. The major rooms on the ground floor were moved intact, to preserve their unique plasterwork and faux wood-grained doorways and wainscoting, on flat-bed trucks. The spiral staircase was also moved intact by (a very long) truck. The upper floor rooms were disassembled, the boards numbered, and reassembled on site. Roads had to be closed and power lines temporarily removed along the hundred-mile route. It was clearly an undertaking of passion, which also informed the later furnishing of what was now the Gordon-Banks House.
Who was the man who possessed such passion? William was often referred to as the quintessential Southern gentleman. Born in Grantville, Georgia, in 1924, to a prominent family, he attended Dartmouth before serving in the United States Army during the Second World War. He recommenced his studies after the Army, this time at Yale, from which he graduated with membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He had a consuming interest in theater, and was the author of several successful plays, including Season of Choice, which had a successful run in New York, The Glad Girls and The Curate’s Play, which received positive reviews in The New York Times. William also wrote numerous carefully researched articles on historic American towns and houses, most of which were published in The Magazine Antiques.
William was a lifelong bachelor who was very popular with a number of attractive and intelligent ladies. He maintained an apartment in Manhattan for many years, as well as the house in Temple. He loved to ski and to play tennis, and hunted in his youth. He drove a black Mercedes convertible and exploited the constant twinkle in his eye. He admired creativity in all of its forms and was a generous supporter and Trustee of the Mac Dowell Colony in New Hampshire. He was loyal to his friends and modest in his affect, including even the twinkle. He collected furniture, paintings and experiences with the same passion that brought Bankshaven to life.