Wrriten by: Emely Miranda-Aguilar 🇸🇻
View of Clarke Bedford sitting in his living room from his enclosed porch on Nov.15, 2023 ( Emely Miranda-Aguilar)
Near Hyattsville’s Arts District, you’ll find something out of the ordinary: a unique suburban house covered in antique metal objects and sculptures.
This house is at 3810 Nicholson Street, and over the years, it has slowly transformed into the fascinating Vanadu Art House.
People ask the house’s owner, Clarke Bedford, why he does it. Why did he add art to his cars? Why did he begin doing this to his house?
Even Bedford doesn’t seem to know.
“Why that and not something else? I don’t know. I mean, that’s always the question. Why does anybody make [art]?” said Bedford.
Bedford was born in Connecticut in 1947. His family moved to Baltimore in 1960 when he was 13 years old. There, he attended boarding school.
Art had always been a part of Bedford’s life growing up.
Of his siblings, Bedford, the only boy, said he was the artsy and creative one. He was always making things and liked learning about how things worked. However, it wasn’t until college that Bedford realized his calling.
He left Maryland and began studying at Williams College in 1969 as a science major, planning to become a doctor. All the while, he took art classes alongside his STEM courses.
Bedford withdrew from his main course of study after experiencing a mental “crash and burn” and a failed chemistry experiment.
He went into college as a pre-med major and in the end, became an art major.
Art conservation was not a career Bedford knew much about, let alone one he thought would interest him. Heeding a friend’s advice, he applied to the Cooperstown Graduate Program to study art conservation in Cooperstown, NY.
Bedford met Melanie Gifford in this program, and she later became his wife. After Gifford got an internship at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, she moved to Maryland. A year later, he followed Gifford to Maryland after getting an internship at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
“I couldn’t believe it. [I was] going back to frickin’ Baltimore,” Bedford said.
They lived there for a couple of years until they moved to University Park, a town adjacent to Hyattsville, in 1987. Shortly thereafter, he and Gifford decided to separate, sensing they were two very different people.
“It wasn’t argumentative or nasty, but it was sad, and you’re kind of wonked out by it,” Bedford said.
Gifford decided to remain in University Park, and Bedford moved into the Hyattsville house. It was around this time that he first began experimenting with his Saab convertible.
Though he doesn’t consider himself a real motorhead, he likes old cars. After moving to Hyattsville, Bedford modified his “modern” convertible to look like a “30s roadster.”
“I put together the car. Then I put together another car and things that didn’t fit on the cars I started to put along the front fence. Then the fence got this and that,” Bedford said. “Honestly, the house was a sort of escape. I can’t even imagine sharing it.”
The former couple continued co-parenting as Gifford was pregnant with their first child.
“I think that living on his own freed Clarke to pursue things like this whole environment of art that is wonderful for him to live in,” Gifford said. “I couldn’t live in it. Too much, too many objects around to live with.”
Bedford finds inspiration from the history and aesthetics of the Victorian era and says it holds the last remnants of an old world. Victorian decor is known for having both opulent and dark elements. He gravitates towards items that showcase this sentiment.
“The Victorian era is sort of last hurrah, a different way of thinking and aesthetic,” Bedford said. “It was a much more risky and peculiar time to be alive.”
According to Bedford, to create the kind of assemblage that’s now his home, one has to know where to find things, what one wants, and how to get them cheaply. He says one can get stuff from the side of the road, second-hand shops and even from other people.
Vanadu is derived from the 19th-century poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan.” In the poem, Xanadu is an idyllic city where Khan builds his pleasure dome. The name “Xanadu” is referenced again in the 1941 movie Citizen Kane.
Before Bedford named it Vanadu Art House, the house had two previous names.
“Contempo by the Lake” was the first name of the home. It got the name from a rustic sign Bedford found at a thrift store and placed it on the door. But the house is not on a lake, so Bedford changed the name to avoid confusion.
The next name, “Assemblage Cottage,” was pronounced with the “odge” sound to create a rhyming effect between the two words. The name stemmed from an inside joke with a former boss who shared a story about ordering “fromage cottage,” or cottage cheese, while in France.
In 2012, Bedford needed a name for his art van, a Ford Econoline, that would be part of a parade in Texas. He combined the word “van” and “Xanadu” to create Vanadu. The house has since adopted the same name.
Today, his children, Lydia and Tim Bedford, said that he has always been creative and is not surprised by what the house has become.
“It makes perfect sense. Growing up, [Bedford] would often make things in the basement’s studio,” Tim Bedford said. “This was a kind of expansion on that restricted space in the basement.”
Lydia Bedford recalled that their father helped them turn some furniture into a pirate ship. She also remembered when her father started this journey.
“I remember the cars starting to get a little bit weird, and then they got really weird. Then he started getting new cars for the sake of being able to make art cars,” Lydia Bedford said.
At the beginning of the year, Sandy Rosenblatt made it a point to visit hidden gems and roadside attractions while commuting to work. Vanadu Art House was one of the places at the top of her list.
Rosenblatt met Bedford this summer and became friends with him.
“I adore him. He is great,” Rosenblatt said. “I swear, if he were my next-door neighbor, he would probably have to put up a big, weird fence.”
A long-time friend of Bedford, Barbara Feininger, sees the house and its evolution as an homage to his creativity and intelligence. Feininger and Bedford met in 1998 when they both worked at the Hirshhorn.
“I think it’s a great expression of his talent… you’ve got to have some skills to be able to put these things on cars and not have them fall off after a year.” said Feininger.
Twenty-three years later, the house continues to make those passing by stop, look and take photos. Bedford said people have knocked on his door asking to see the inside.
Some people have even walked right in while he napped on the couch with Vera, the cat who, he said, is the home’s true owner and star attraction.
“I didn’t do all this for them,” Bedford said. “It makes people feel good because it’s different. And people like that. It’s the same with the cars. People laugh, people smile, people are interested, and people get to take photos of themselves in front of it. And that’s the altruistic act. You are really sort of doing something for other people.”