This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Architectural Digest.
Although it is grand enough to be described as a Stately Home, Yester House, in East Lothian, which neighbors the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, lacks the solemnity usually associated with the official classification. This beautiful 18th-century house has too much panache, and even too much oddness, to meet the usual criteria. Whether this can be credited to the present owner, Francis Menotti, and his late father, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, or to a quality inherent in the house itself, it is hard to say—but it is probably the result of a happy combination of both.
The somewhat complex history of the house may be briefly told. From the 14th century, the land around Yester belonged to the Hay family, who were elevated to the title Marquess of Tweeddale in the late 17th century. The current building dates from the end of that century and was partly designed by James Smith and Alexander McGill, although the most significant work on the house was done by Scotland’s preeminent architect, William Adam, who was engaged by the fourth Marquess of Tweeddale in the early 18th century. When William Adam died in 1748, the work was taken over by his more famous son Robert, who made various changes to his father’s plans in the classical Palladian style, modifying the exterior and designing the magnificent saloon on the upper floor. In doing this, he not only gave Yester House its most glorious feature but also created one of the great rooms of Scotland. It is a room that, albeit on a grand scale, is so harmonious that it instills a feeling of well-being in the visitor.
A visitor arriving for the first time will be struck by a certain lack of symmetry in the façade. One of the reasons for this is that only one of the original two wings survives, the other having been demolished. The surviving wing, with a little pavilion surmounted by a gracefully curving roof, is of a typical Scottish type. Where one might expect to see the other pavilion is the present entrance to the house, which, together with a porte cochere, was added in the mid-19th century when the entrance was moved to the west side of the house. The front drive was moved from its original position at the same time, and the house does not confront the visitor head-on; rather, it first reveals itself from an oblique angle, which has the advantage of avoiding the picture-postcard aspect presented by so many grand houses on first view.
The porte cochere entrance now serves another function. Around 1900 it was glassed in and a small conservatory was created where originally the carriages would have set down their passengers to protect them from the vicissitudes of the weather. The result today is that the visitor, as he or she enters the house, is greeted with the luxurious scent of hothouse plants, a promising hint of pleasures to come.
Yester House, dating from the late 17th century and situated in East Lothian, in the southeast of Scotland, stands at the base of the Lammermuir Hills. Owner Francis Menotti explains that numerous Scottish architects had a hand in its design and renovations, notably Robert Adam, to whom the north façade is credited.
The Tweeddales lived at Yester until the late 1960s, when they sold the house to two antiques dealers who in turn sold it to Gian Carlo Menotti in 1972. From this moment Yester acquired a new lease on life, and an entirely new phase in its history began. The elder Menotti was not only the composer of many operas, including Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Medium, The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street (for all of which he also wrote the story and the libretto), but, as is well known, he was also the originator of the Spoleto Festival, which he founded in 1958 as the Festival of Two Worlds and which still takes place annually in Italy’s Umbria region. Countless artists, musicians and writers have appeared at Spoleto, and during the weeks of the festival the town becomes a vital center of creative activity. Menotti had an extraordinary gift for recognizing new talent as well as a boundless generosity of spirit and a willingness to take risks. Within a galaxy of international stars from the artistic firmament—such as Jean Cocteau, Henry Moore, Rudolf Nureyev, Ezra Pound and Tennessee Williams—the main aim of the festival has been to discover and encourage young musical talent.
Jacqueline du Pré performed at Spoleto at the age of 20, for example, and many other famous artists debuted there.
Francis Menotti is a brilliant stage designer manqué, and his sense of theater and visual flair have given Yester its particular flavor and originality. Over the years he has held some memorable festivities at the house, filling the rooms with music performed by the likes of Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis, along with many musicians whose careers began at the Spoleto Festival. On all such occasions the house was filled with flowers and entirely lit by candles, conjuring an atmosphere of magic.
Regrettably, the opera house the Menotti family planned to have built on the site of the derelict stables at Yester was never realized. All that remains of the venture today is a beautiful model of the theater, designed in the classical style by the British architect Quinlan Terry, which stands in the entrance hall.
One of the charms of Yester is the variety of decoration in the rooms, achieved without sacrificing the harmony of the whole. This may in part be a function of the thickness of the walls, which allow four-foot-wide antechambers between the rooms on the second floor. Substantial doors of late-18th-century design separate the entrances, and the transitional spaces between them prepare one visually for a change of style. Each room has its own particular tone, rather as if Francis Menotti were designing different scenes for a play or an opera, a characteristic that applies particularly to the bedrooms, which, together with the baths, exhibit an almost Edwardian sense of luxury and solidity.
The rooms all have 20-foot ceilings and classical proportions, a feature that was virtually taken for granted in 18th-century houses. The humblest builders of the period were equipped with such reference works as Edward Hoppus’s Gentleman’s and Builder’s Repository, a 1737 publication deriving ultimately from Palladio’s architectural writings that dictated the proportions of rooms, down to the smallest details. The result at Yester is a sense of harmony and of grandeur that is never overwhelming and always welcoming.
Francis Menotti has gradually collected pictures and furniture that reflect his personal and eclectic taste. In the late maestro’s studio, for example, stands a 16th-century Italian organ case transformed into a bookcase, one of the many reminders of Gian Carlo’s Italian parentage. In addition, there are pieces that relate to Menotti’s operas and to the Spoleto Festival, many of which were presents from distinguished artists. This array of objects, coupled with that rare sense of festivity, has made every visit to Yester a memorable and inspiring occasion.
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