Tag Archives: Historic Interiors

Hang the King and Queen in the Dining Room

Back to the seventeenth century, where I am working my way through a series of instructional books produced to meet the apparent and universal demand for better health, more wealth, and an enhanced quality of life. For most of yesterday I was in the company of William Salmon, Doctor of Physick, who wrote an comprehensive and detailed compendium titled Polygraphice: or The Arts of Drawing, Engraving, Etching, Limning, Painting, Washing, Varnishing, Gilding, Colouring, Dyeing, Beautifying and Perfuming, which was published in eight expanding editions from 1671 to 1701. Here we have the third edition, from the University of Heidelberg, which includes an additional “Discourse on Perspective and Chiromancy”. In some ways, this is your typical early modern mishmash of arts, “sciences”, and a bit of magic, but in other ways it is very precise and technical, the instructions for perspective and shading particularly so. Salmon is always referred to as an “empiric” in terms of his medical practice, but his publications are so diverse one assumes they are primarily derivative—yet there seems to be some strong opinions among the instructions.

Salmon Pyro

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And the long seventeenth-century title does not mislead us: Salmon offers up instructions on all aspects of drawing, engraving, and etching, he tells us how to mix up paint colours, of both water and oil, and how to gild, varnish and dye, and then he makes the remarkable transition from painting canvases to rooms to faces! This is the rationalization: some may wonder that we should meddle with such a subject as this, in this place, but let such know; the Painting of a deformed Face, and the licking over of old, withered, wrinkled, and weather-beaten skin are as proper appendices to a painter, as the rectification of his Errors in a piece of Canvas. Well. Since he’s in the realm of cosmetics, he tells us how to make a variety of waters, and touches on alchemy for a bit—more in forthcoming editions. I was delighted to see a very early reference to “Popinjay Green”, which I think must be my favorite color (no–apparently not that early a reference: the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the word first appeared in English in 1322, and the reference to the color began appearing in the sixteenth century).

Popinjay Green Collage

Popinjay Susan Sandford

Adding an anachronistic image here: this “Popinjay” collage of a turn-of-the-century dandy by artist Susan Sanford just seemed to fit in this post + I like it.

There is very little creativity in this text about art, but the time, place, author, and genre dictate didacticism. Salmon instructs us not only how to make paints, but also which colors to apply to which subjects, whether it’s the sky or the clouds or the grass in a “landskip” or the skin of the subject of a portrait. Once the paintings are complete, he tells his readers where they should be “disposed of” (hung) in their houses: royalty in the dining room, forbear all “obscene pictures” in the banqueting rooms, and family pictures in the bedchamber. Art is essentially skilled imitation of nature, in an ideal sense: the work of the Painter is to express the exact imitation of natural things; wherein you are to observe the excellencies and beauties of the piece, but to refuse its vices.

Salmon CollageThe dining room at the royal palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, over which King George IV reigns.


A Turnkey Homestead

I’m using the expression “turnkey” in typical contrary fashion here: it’s a real estate term which generally means a house that requires no repairs or refurbishment, just turn the key and you are home in your new purchase. The Rundlet-May house in Portsmouth struck me as a turnkey house in another sense: Ralph May, the fourth of his generation to live in the house, donated it to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation for New England Antiquities) in 1971 and now when you enter the house (or turn the key, in a sense) it seems as if you are within a space that he just left. This is an imposing Federal, made less so by the lived-in ambiance of a home to four generations of the same family.

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Rundlett May 18The Rundlet-May House (1807) and views out back from its second and third floors.

Even though the house itself is an extravagant construction on large urban acreage, everything about its interior speaks to Yankee thrift: from the original peach damask wallpaper in one of the front parlors to the original Edison light bulb in a fixture on the second-floor landing–which is turned on once a year. It’s the perfect old-money house. John Rundlet, the self-made man who built (and apparently designed?) the house purchased and commissioned the best of everything (including a Rumford Roaster and a Rumford Range) and his descendants seem to have changed very little other than altering the use of its rooms to suit their activities and professions.

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Rundlett May 9First-floor parlors, hall and kitchen (with Rumford Roaster) and fire buckets, of course. I found several early 20th-century postcards of the house which referred to Samuel McIntire as the carver of the right parlor’s mantle (above), but I think this is just an illustration of the Salem architect and woodcarver’s fame in the midst of the Colonial Revival era.

There’s probably too much furniture–beautiful as it all is—in the house: tables and dressers and painted chairs. Should a beautiful card table be situated just inches away facing an even more beautiful Portsmouth bureau in a narrow window nook of an upstairs bedroom? No necessarily, but this placement allows us to see both of these pieces. There’s also a lot of stuff. But it’s their stuff and their home, and we are all privileged to be able to enter within!

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Ralph MaySecond and Third Floors, including Ralph May’s 3rd floor study, with all of his stuff. Below: this “musical” decorative motif ran through the house—it caught my eye because the same motif is on one of my Fancy chairs. (the last photograph).

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Fancy Chair


Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

Portsmouth always struck me as a Georgian town, even from a young age, when I first developed an appreciation for historic houses at Strawbery Banke and first spotted what is still one of my very favorite houses nearby. There are Federal houses too, but it doesn’t feel as Federal as its sister seaports to the south, Newburyport and Salem. There is a range of Georgian houses in Portsmouth, from relatively simple to absolutely grand: on this past weekend I revisited three of the latter varieties: the Warner House (1716) the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763),  and the Governor John Langdon House (1784). Each house has a different owner, and a different………style, but all are exquisite representations of their era. The combination of the entirety of their construction with all the crafted details within—including the wonderful Portsmouth furniture in each house—is hard to capture: you’ll just have to visit each one yourself.

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Georgian Langdon HouseThe Warner House, owned and operated by the Warner House Association from the early 1930s, The MoffattLadd House, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, and the Governor Langdon House, a property of Historic New England.

I loved the colors of the Warner House: rich jewel tones throughout. It’s not too pristine: you do get the feeling that you are imposing on the past (although there is quite a lot of plastic fruit). Those wild murals! The textures are wonderful too—especially of the smalted rooms upstairs. This is the oldest urban brick house in North America and it feels that way: both old and urban. You look out its windows and see a bustling city—this would not have been the case in the 1930s when it was rescued or even later: the Warner guide, like all the Portsmouth guides I encountered last weekend, stressed the fact that the city’s current vibrance contrasts with its more depreciated state in the 1970s—and I remember that to be the case.

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Warner 3collageParlors and bedrooms at the Warner House, a scary squirrel, and always the threat of fire (the tool is to take apart your very valuable bed).

The Moffatt-Ladd House has been very much in the thick of things from its construction; once it faced the wharves of prosperous Portsmouth, but now the horse chestnut tree planted in 1776 by General William Whipple upon his return from signing the Declaration of Independence still stands guard at the entrance to its courtyard. It’s a very airy house inside due to its elevated situation as well as its large entrance parlor—and its beautiful rear parlor, now in the midst of restoration, runs parallel to the wonderful terraced garden outside.

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Moffatt-Ladd Stairs

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Georgian Portsmouth 13Moffatt-Ladd parlors and stairs, front parlor original wallpaper and the parlor-in-process with its amazing mantle and Chinese Chippendale chairs; I always brake for fire buckets! The amazing garden.

I think Georgian houses have to be pre-revolutionary, but I’m the only one who thinks that, so I am including the Governor Langdon House, which was built the year after the American Revolution concluded. The scale is even larger here than Moffatt-Ladd, and the house reflects the passage of time, with Greek and Colonial Revival rooms as well as a dining room designed by Stanford White. It seems both national in inspiration but also very much a crafted Portsmouth house, as illustrated by those distinctive staircase balusters, contrasted below with those of Moffatt-Ladd (on the left).

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Langdon Hallway

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Langdon Mantle

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Georgian Portsmouth Details

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Georgian Portsmouth 2Those Rococo mantles! And all that beautiful Portsmouth furniture. As you move back through the house, you move up in time, into Greek and Colonial Revival rooms.

While I was looking around for images of the houses in their earlier situations, I came across the works of two women artists among the digital collections of the Portsmouth Public Library: Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900) and Helen Pearson (1870-1949). Both Portsmouth women clearly loved the architecture of their native city, and rendered it in series of charming vignettes, which were incorporated in their successive guidebooks. Wonderful discoveries: Foster’s naivete and Pearson’s detail both capture Portsmouth’s charm, past and (fortunately) present.

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Georgian Ladd Pearson

Langdon DoorVignettes by Sarah Haven Foster (the Warner House) and Helen Pearson (Warner, Moffatt-Ladd garden, Langdon doorway), Portsmouth Public Library Digitized Collections.


At the Eustis Estate

Nestled between busy Boston, Quincy, and Route 128, the town of Milton, Massachusetts still wears signs of its pastoral past. It’s an original streetcar suburb, but the Blue Hills drew prosperous Brahmins south to build country estates, and several are still standing, even thriving. Everywhere I go in the vicinity of Boston: north, west, south: I continue to be amazed at the legacy of nineteenth-century fortunes—and taste. Now it seems as if we still live amidst great wealth, but not so much taste. I drove down to Milton last week to see Historic New England’s latest acquisition, the Eustis Estate, where I spent all of my allotted time, but I could have also visited the Forbes House Museum or the Wakefield Estate. I did drive down Adams Street for a fleeting sight of the birthplace of President George H.W. Bush, but I was pretty focused on my singular destination: an amazing 1878 structure designed by the “Father of the Shingle Style”, William Ralph Emerson, set amidst subtly-shaped grounds designed by Ernest W. Bowditch.

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Historic New England has spared no expense or consideration in its restoration and interpretation of the Eustis Estate, which it acquired in 2012, after three generations of the family owned and inhabited the house. You can access their tour here–and you should if you really want a curatorial interpretation of the house because I’m just going to give you an impression: never have I been more conscious of my architectural naiveté as when I stepped foot into this house! My first–and strongest—impression is oddly one of contradiction: of the solidness of the exterior masonry and interior woodwork with the overall airiness of the house, accentuated by the three-story Grand Hall and all those windows framing outside views. You can see the frame of the house, and the house also serves as a frame for the landscape in which it sits. Inside, everything is a juxtaposition of dark and light, the light coming from outside but also from the burnished details within.

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Eustis Hall

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Eustis Window

As an Aesthetic structure, no surface is unembellished, and the architectural detail is almost overwhelming: I’m sure I overlooked many things and will have to return many times! The house’s many mantels are obvious focal points: the grand fireplace in the first-floor “living hall”, terra cotta masquerading as wood, is a symbolic tour-stopper. But everywhere there is detail to be considered: floor to ceiling and everywhere in between. I loved the coffered ceiling, the interior window shutters, the little “telephone cabinet”, the inter-connected pantries, the inter-connected bathroom, and the nursery rhyme tiles surrounding the nursery mantle. Just to mention a few details.

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EUSTIS FIREPLACES collage

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Wherever and whenever a considerable amount of money is spent in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, there is always a Salem connection, and that is the case with the Eustis Estate, which was built for young marrieds W.E.C. Eustis and Edith Hemenway Eustis on land given to them by Edith’s mother, Mary Tiletson Hemenway. Mrs. Hemenway was an energetic philanthropist whose activities were financed in great part by the wealth of her husband and Edith’s father, Salem-born Edward Augustus Holyoke Hemenway (1805-76). Mary herself had Salem roots, and the Hemenway Family Papers were deposited in the Phillips Library in Salem, which is of course now displaced to Rowley. The Hemenways’ stories are other stories, but also in part Salem stories. The estate’s landscape architect, Ernest Bowditch, represents another Salem connection as he was the grandson of the great Salem navigator Nathaniel Bowditch: and yes, the Bowditch Family Papers are also in the Phillips Library.

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Eustis Garden

Eustis Land

For another Emerson house: see this post. These photographs by Steve Rosenthal are all we have left of the Loring House, which was demolished in 2015.


Home, Hearth & History

I’m really looking forward to an upcoming exhibition at the Concord Museum: Fresh Goods: Shopping for Goods in a New England Town, 1750-1900, offered as part of a state-wide MASS Fashion collaborative project which will include a fall exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society guest-curated by my Salem State colleague Kimberly AlexanderFashioning the New England Family. I thought I had fashion fatigue, because there have been so many clothing-based exhibitions over the past few years, but these exhibitions look a bit different to me—there’s something more active and engaging about the words shopping and furnishing. Instead of just being wowed by the artifacts, we can learn how and why they came to be created and acquired, processes that involved not just cultural considerations, but also economic and social factors. If I were a curator, I think I would like to create a similar exhibition focusing on home furnishings, because that could offer up insights into so many crafts, industries, and distributors—especially over the nineteenth century as households were affected increasingly by market forces. Recapturing and representing colonial “hearths and homes” and “daily life” were Colonial Revival preoccupations over a century ago; I think we could do with a refresh–and an expanded chronological focus.

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373 Essex Street Joseph Ropes©Boston Athenaeum and Phillips Library, Timothy Ropes Papers (MSS 365).

I imagine there are two approaches to researching the history of household furnishing: presume by utilizing prescriptive materials like trade catalogs and books on contemporary home decoration, or establish through receipts, diaries, and accounts. There are certainly lots of collections of the former, at the Smithsonian, here, and the Winterthur Library, to name just a few sources. Individual household accounts are more decentralized, of course, and for Salem we would be quite dependant on the collections of the Phillips Library: the marvelous hand-drawn sketch by Joseph Ropes of his bedroom at 373 Essex Street above was included in a blog post published by the library which is no longer available, but I was so taken with it I snipped it right up, fortunately. Imagine researching the furnishing of just this one room: that odd stove, so many chairs, the textiles on the bedspread and chair? Wherever they end up, and hopefully digitized, all those family papers in the Phillips have such a wealth of information within—capable of tracing the history of decades of the China Trade and a single year in the material life of one Salem household. But until they see the light of day, we have some other sources: the Winterthur Library’s digital collection of ephemera will not enable me to source Joseph Ropes’ room, but it can give us a few glimpses into Salem’s material past.

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Home Funishings

A crate of Liverpool Ware for Mr. Nathaniel Burnham (?), 1801; perhaps a pattern such as this (Northeast Auctions)? Andirons and a Kettle for Captain John Waters and the Captain himself (Northeast Auctions); furniture for another Mr. Waters, 1861; 14 yards of black silk for Mr. Goodhue; pillow and furniture manufacturers in the 1880s, Winterthur Library.


Hamilton House

While I was up in York Harbor for the weekend I took the opportunity to visit Historic New England’s Hamilton House on Saturday afternoon while everyone else was at the beach. I’ve been on a historic-house museum kick this summer, and while I’ve been to Hamilton House (in neighboring South Berwick) before, it merits repeated visits if only for its setting and gardens. It’s the perfect Colonial/Colonial Revival House, built in the earlier period (c. 1785) by new money and “restored” with not-quite-old Boston money at the turn of the last century. In between, it was a working farm, with hay in the attic and tenants on the first floor. After it was acquired by Historic New England in 1946, it was returned to its original appearance on the exterior, but the Colonial Revival summer house interiors were retained.

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Hamilton House

Hamilton House Woodbury

Hamilton House today and in John Mead Howells’ classic Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (1937)+ a Charles Woodbury illustration of the house, the setting for Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover (1901). South Berwick native Jewett apparently convinced her friends Emily and Elise Tyson (Vaughan) to buy the derelict house for their summer retreat. The Tysons had sold their former summer house in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts to Henry Clay Frick, who promptly knocked it down. 

Because it was a summer house, there’s more than a bit of incongruity between the furnishings and the architecture: the former is genteel “shabby chic”, early twentieth-century style, and the latter is quite grand, especially the large central hall. The straw matting running through the house contributes quite a bit to this rambling mix. While obviously I am a Philistine when it comes to the interior of Hamilton House, it is much appreciated by others, and was also quite influential in its own time, as explained in this great post over at the Down East Dilettante. I did appreciate how its interiors related to its setting, poised as it is over the Salmon Falls River with gardens, fields and forest also in view, and the rather charming Zuber-esque murals of Portsmouth artist George Fernald Porter.

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First floor parlor, murals and dining room, and the requisite open hearth in the kitchen.

The summer furnishings also make the house feel very airy, particularly on the second floor. If the Tyson ladies found anything remotely Victorian in the house when they took possession, I am certain that it was banished immediately! As we ascended upstairs, we could see an exposed beam which was repurposed by the house’s builder, Captain Jonathan Hamilton: when he didn’t need it for one of his ships, it was used for his new house.

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Hamilton Dolls

Just three of Elise Tyson Vaughan’s vast collection of dolls: apparently the remainder are in the Peabody Essex Museum. It’s impossible to search its vast collections so who knows?

The Tysons moved an adjacent barn and laid out an enclosed garden of “colonial” flowers surrounding a sundial and fountain and extending to a garden cottage composed of salvaged doors and planks from a first-period house across the river: a shady respite from the summer sun but at the same time open to its environs. As you can see, it’s the season for phlox, which surely must be the perfect Colonial Revival perennial.

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Hamilton Garden Cottage

Hamilton Garden


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