How one woman’s fascination with Iranian culture inspired a Beacon Hill town house

by Eric Roth

The Boston Globe Magazine, Sunday, March 2, 2003
Persian Penchant
Downstairs study, ILEX Foundation, Boston, MA

Olga Davidson is living a beautiful obsession. It all started in 1974, when, as an undergraduate at Boston University, she saw an ancient illuminated Persian book. Captivated by its beauty, she decided to learn Arabic so that she could read the text accompanying the glorious drawings.

“I have a single-minded attraction to Persian culture, literature, music, movies, plays, food, people, and religion,” says Davidson, who in 1975 persuaded her husband, Gregory Nagy, to travel to Iran for their honeymoon. “I am a bona fide Iranophile. People laugh at me, especially Iranians.”

This cultural love affair has taken Davidson in many directions. As a scholar, she earned a doctorate in Near eastern studies at Princeton University and taught Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University, where she is now an associate professor of women’s studies. She is also the author of two books and Persian literature and poetry. As a traveler, she has ridden horses across the desert with nomadic Iranian tribes.

Her most enterprising role, however, was the founding of the Ilex Foundation in 1999, an organization that promotes the study of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures. Nagy, director of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., is an Ilex trustee.

Davidson, who serves as board of trustees chairwoman, has created an exquisitely decorated home for the foundation in a Beacon Hill town house, which also serves as guest quarters for dignitaries, writers, artists, and scholars whom Ilex helps sponsor. “I wanted a really nice home to welcome Iranian visitors to Boston,” says Davidson. “They feel very comfortable here; there is an air of dignity.”

From the outside, the building is classic Beacon Hill. Inside, however, where all the artwork, accessories, and accent fabrics are from Iran, the beauty of Persia is framed by the traditional Federal architecture.

Davidson, who worked with Boston interior designer Eleanor Samuels, says: “Eleanor was really good at understanding my feelings about furniture, fabrics, and wallcovering. When she asked me what colors are traditional in Iran, I gave her an Iranian cookbook called Food of Life. All the colors of Persia are in that book.”

The project, begun in 1999, was on a fast track. “Eleanor and I bought most of the living room furniture right off the floor at the Boston Design Center,” says Davidson. “We were in a mad rush to finish the place for a big reception for the Iranian delegation to the U.N.”

Together, client and designer chose traditional American upholstered pieces that provide a calm background for the accents of colorful Persian weaving. Stately silk curtains, hung from ceiling to floor, complement the fine Persian carpets. Old Persian books line the shelves, and large illuminated volumes are displayed on tables.

The soul of the house is the exotic and eclectic art collection. “When people come in here, they are immediately struck by the wonderful artwork,” says Davidson. “We have paintings from Persia of many periods. Some are serious and some are whimsical. I think they are all beautiful. Soon, after people look more carefully, they begin to realize that the picture frames are as exquisite as the pictures.”

Davidson worked with framer Andy Macie of Greenfield, who incorporated fabrics, papers, and woods into custom frames for paintings as well as for a pair of antique Persian wedding dresses.

An elegant staircase rises through the five-story town house, and much of the art collection is hung along its walls. The stunning carpet on the stairs bears white Persian medallions on a blue field.

The guest room is clad in Bengali Birds wallpaper by Brunschwig & Fils, and elegant English adaptation of a Persian motif. Framed portraits of Persians, as portrayed by English artists circa 1850 “They look like WASPs with unibrows,” says Davidson with a laugh are hung on the walls.

In a casual basement-level family room, a huge 19th-century painting of a Persian princess dreamily towers above a collection of antique water pipes, or hookahs, next to the mantel.

Upstairs, the stately first-floor dining room blends traditional Western flatware with exotic dishware that depicts an ancient ayatollah. Bright red-and-gold glassware shares a palette with the chandelier and hurricane lamps.

Davidson and Samuels believe their decorating efforts go beyond interior design. Ever optimistic, Davidson muses: “We have entertained some very important guests. Who knows, maybe this place could make a difference in encouraging world peace.”