Tag Archives: Historic House Museums

Treasure House

Treasure House. That’s how the guide introduced the Codman Estate in Lincoln, Massachusetts, long known as “The Grange,” at the beginning of her tour the other day. It’s a term which has a specific meaning for Historic New England, which has been the owner and steward of the house since 1968: not only the house itself, but all of the treasures therein, encompassing the possessions and papers of the Codman family of Boston. The Grange was their summer house, expanded and decorated in successive eras by family members/design luminaries John Hubbard Sturgis and Ogden Codman Jr. My ears pricked up when I heard that term, because it’s how Salem was often described in the early and mid-twentieth century, as a treasure house of American material culture. That’s certainly not how Salem is thought of now, but in that heyday, proponents of the Colonial Revival like Ogden Codman Jr. thought and referred to it as such. When I was writing my chapter on Colonial Revival Salem for our forthcoming book this summer, I read quite widely (trying to make up for a disciplinary deficit) and reread Edith Wharton’s and Codman’s classic collaboration, The Decoration of Houses (1897). This book is so crystal clear in its articulation and presentation of interior design as a branch of architecture rather than “dressmaking” that I became more interested in Codman, who was both an architect and interior designer. I went off on a tangent, learning some very interesting design theories and practices as well as trivial details like the fact that he called Wharton (who was his client before his collaborator) “Pussy” and she called him “Coddy.”  And then it only seemed right to revisit the Grange, as the last time I went there, when I was in my 20s, I didn’t have a clue. I seem to remember being impressed with its Federal forthrightness, but not its interior, which I found “shabby.”

Well, its origins are not Federal: the models above show how the original Georgian house was transformed into the Federal Grange over the next century or so. But, it still strikes me as shabby, in an authentic rather than “chic” way: very layered and very waspy. This was really his father’s house, and there were things that Ogden Codman Jr. could change and things he could or would not. You can see his attempts to lighten things up, in his characteristic French-Colonial Revival fusion style, but the heavier hand of his uncle, John Hubbard Sturgis, is still much in evidence. So it’s quite a melange! Toile and Chintz in the sitting rooms and Tudor Revival in the dining room. I think I liked chintz back then, not a fan now, but will always love toile.

The very different stamps of Sturgis and Codman Jr. make for an interesting house. The Elizabethan dining room must have driven the latter crazy, but I love it. We went into only the front bedrooms, which seemed very Ogdenesque.

The other layering effect in the house is a result of the sheer number of Codman possessions therein: photographs, paintings, books, assorted personal items. There’s a time-capsule feeling, as if the family just went out the door, quite a while ago. That feeling is really resonant in the back of the house, where the servants lived and worked. I don’t remember seeing these spaces before: such a succession of rooms and staircases! How many staircases are there in this house? An impressive double staircase in front, and two or three in back? I lost track. Sturgis designed the rear addition, but I’m sure that neither he nor Codman ventured out back, so in a way (and except for the appliances and utilitarian elements) these ways feel even more timeless.

All the staircases and the way out back, eventually into the Italian Garden, which was being set up for a wedding on a VERY humid afternoon. I hope everything went well!

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