Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Role of Period Interior Views in the Recreation of Historic Interiors, Part II

In part one, two restored rooms in historic house museums were used as examples to discuss how recreated historic interiors relate to specific and general period interior views.  The third example is a parlor removed from a house built in Saratoga Springs, New York, in the mid-nineteenth century and installed as a "period room" in the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York.

A period room in an art museum is a rather unique type of historic interior.   The simplest definition of an art museum period room is an interior that has been removed, frequently in toto, from an historic residential structure, installed in the exhibit galleries of a museum and then arranged with furnishings of the same historical period as the architectural elements of the room.  The purpose of a period room is typically to represent the domestic interior architectural styles and decorative fashions of a particular historical period.  Unlike the restored rooms in a historic house museum, period rooms in art museums usually do not contain furnishings original to the house from which the room was removed nor do they reflect the lifestyle or personal tastes of the actual individuals who once occupied the residence.  In most instances, the architectural elements in a period room, including doors and door surrounds, windows and window surrounds, mantelpieces, overmantels, floor boards, wood paneling, plaster walls, plaster or wood paneled ceilings, cornices, mouldings and plaster relief decoration, derive from one source while furnishings such as furniture, decorative objects, lighting and  floor coverings come from a completely different source, typically the museum's permanent decorative arts collection. The furnishings that are selected, while of the period, usually do not echo the exact furnishings that were originally in the room. The recreated interiors in historic house museums do not always contain original furnishings, but typically the period substitutes mirror the types of furnishings documented in period interior views or in written documents such as household inventories.  As is too frequently the case in American period rooms, the architectural interior and the furnishings are from different regions of the United States, despite historical evidence indicating that in the geographic area where the room was once located, the furnishings would have been obtained locally rather than purchased and shipped from another part of the country.

A few period rooms stand out as an exception to the rule, such as the parlor from the mid-nineteenth-century house of Colonel Robert J. Milligan (fig. 1), now part of an encyclopedic collection of American period rooms installed at the Brooklyn Museum. The 1855-1856 architectural decoration and furnishings in the Milligans' parlor survived intact into the middle of the twentieth century, when the Brooklyn Museum purchased the parlor and library and their contents.  This important acquisition of two mid-nineteenth-century upstate New York interiors included not only architectural elements and furniture original to the rooms, but also a number of surviving bills of sale, or receipts, for the parlor furnishings purchased by the Milligan family in the 1850s.  In 1940 the rooms and furnishings from the Saratoga residence were officially accessioned into the museum's collections and later installed in the nineteenth-century American decorative arts galleries.

The Milligan residence, built 1854-1856 in Saratoga Springs, New York, is a two-and-one-half-story Italianate style house featuring pedimented windows on the main facade, an entrance portico surmounted by a cresting of anthemia and palmettes and a cupola rising from the roof (fig. 2).  The design reflects a certain degree of conservatism in its strictly symmetrical plan, which harks back to the floor plans of Greek Revival houses of the 1830s and 1840s.  Also somewhat anachronistic from an architectural standpoint are the projecting center pavilion with pediment and Palladian-type window on the entrance front, elements typically associated with Georgian houses built a century earlier.

Fig. 1.  Parlor from the Colonel Robert J. Milligan House, Saratoga Springs, New York, as installed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
Fig. 2.  Colonel Robert J. Milligan House, Saratoga Springs, New York. Photograph, 1940. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY

Fig. 3.  Detail of ceiling in parlor. Colonel Robert J. Milligan
House, Saratoga Springs, New York. Photograph, 1940.
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
The plan of the first floor of the Milligan house consisted of a center entrance hall flanked on either side by two rooms.  The parlor and the library stood back to back on one side of the hall.  In the Victorian era the parlor was a formal room used for receiving visitors and entertaining guests while the library frequently served as the family sitting room. As the reception room, the parlor was larger and more elaborately decorated than the library.  The decoration of the Milligans' parlor includes a carved marble mantelpiece, shaped panels framed by classical moldings centering a medallion on the ceiling and a molded plaster cornice crowning the walls (fig. 3).  Dividing the parlor and library are two sliding pocket doors framed by fluted Corinthian pilasters surmounted by an entablature (fig. 4).  The panels of the doors are decorated with Gothic tracery.
Fig. 4.  Detail of pocket doors between parlor and library. Colonel 
Robert J. Milligan House, Saratoga Springs, New York.
Photograph, 1940. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY


Surviving historical written and visual documents, including bills of sale and photographs, provide a record of the furnishings in the Milligans' parlor. In 1856 the family purchased an elegant matched set of Rococo Revival rosewood furniture manufactured by the cabinetmaking firm of Elijah Galusha, a prominent furniture maker active in Troy, New York, from 1828 to 1870. The suite consists of a sofa, armchair, bergere, four side chairs and a center table. Other furnishings purchased for the parlor include a Rococo Revival étagère, an Elizabethan Revival rosewood reception chair, a pair of side chairs, a Rococo Revival rosewood pianoforte, a Rococo Revival gilt overmantel mirror with molded gesso decoration, giltwood window cornices, a colorful wall-to-wall carpet with a bold Rococo Revival pattern of sprays of flowers, swirling leaves and scrolls and a Rococo Revival gilt-brass six-branch gas chandelier.  Most of these furnishings are now part of the Milligan parlor installation at the Brooklyn Museum.

The objects in the Milligans' parlor reflected the dictates of fashion in the mid-nineteenth century, when tastemakers prescribed the Rococo Revival style for the decoration and furnishings of what was regarded as the most important room in the home.  The Victorian housewife was expected to serve as hostess to visitors and guests, all of whom were entertained in the parlor.  The parlor was therefore perceived as the domain of the woman.  It was also the room that contained the most expensive and impressive furnishings in the entire household.  The Rococo Revival style, with its emphasis on voluptuous curves and delicate decoration of flowers and scrolling leaves, had a lighthearted, feminine quality that perfectly suited the room over which the lady of the house presided as hostess.

Descendants of Robert J. Milligan presented to the Brooklyn Museum not only bills of sale but also a number of family photographs, including a late-nineteenth-century view of the parlor (fig. 5).  This photograph, which appears to date between 1880 and 1900, indicates that the Milligan family did not update the decoration or furnishings of the parlor as the years passed and new decorating styles came into fashion.  Practically all the furnishings and decorations from the 1850s were still in place when the room was photographed later in the nineteenth century.

Fig. 5.  Parlor. Colonel Robert J. Milligan House, Saratoga Springs, New York. Photograph, c.1880-1900. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY

Fig. 6.  Lambrequin, silk brocatelle, 1850-1865, probably New England.
Historic New England, Boston, MA
The photographic view of the Milligan parlor captures a fashionable but rather modestly decorated room.  In the photograph can be seen the Rococo Revival parlor suite made by Elijah Galusha, supplemented by additional side chairs and reception chairs in different revival styles. The center table is arranged with a stack of books as well as with a gas table lamp connected by means of a rubber hose to the six-branch gas chandelier hanging above.  The room does not appear to contain many decorative objects, although most likely the mantelpiece, which is out of view, was arranged with a combination of items including girandoles, vases and perhaps a mantel clock.  While the floor is covered with a boldly patterned wall-to-wall carpet, the walls are simply plastered and painted a solid color. Close inspection of the photograph reveals that the windows are hung not only with lace curtains but also with window shades, described as "roller blinds" in the nineteenth century.  The absence of heavy window curtains implies that the photograph was taken during the summer months.  In the Victorian period, curtains made of silk, wool or cotton fabrics, with linings and interlinings, were removed before the summer to allow air to flow through open windows.  The lightweight lace curtains and roller blinds, which hung under the heavy "main" curtains most of the year, were left in place during the warm season to provide privacy.  The photograph shows that each window frame was mounted at the top with a Rococo Revival stamped sheet-brass window cornice.  These cornices most likely suspended shaped valances called lambrequins (fig. 6).  Along with the heavy window curtains, the lambrequins would have been removed for the summer season.

As installed in the Brooklyn Museum, the Milligan parlor appears more elaborate than the room depicted in the late-nineteenth-century interior view.  While the majority of the furnishings seen in the parlor today are original to the room, many mid-nineteenth-century decorative objects from other sources were introduced at the time of installation.  These items outnumber the quantity of decorations visible in the photograph.  An opulent two-tier gas chandelier hung with cut-glass pendants substitutes for the simpler single-tier gilt-brass chandelier seen in the interior view.  The window treatments that now adorn the parlor windows, red and gold silk curtains and lambrequins from a house built in Brooklyn in the 1850s, are most likely more elaborate and expensive than the curtains and valances that originally hung at the windows in the Milligans' home.

It appears that when the Milligan parlor was installed in the Brooklyn Museum, the room was transformed into a "high style" Rococo Revival parlor, similar to the richly decorated and elaborately furnished drawing room of Litchfield Villa in Brooklyn, built 1855-1857 to the designs of New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis (fig. 7).  Ironically, the silk window curtains now hanging in the Robert J. Milligan parlor were originally made for the Litchfield residence.  

Fig. 7.  Drawing room. Litchfield Villa, Brooklyn, New York. Photograph, c.1876-1886. The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, New York, NY
The arrangement of the furniture in the Milligan parlor installation is similar to the placement documented in the family photograph.  The mid-nineteenth-century parlor was dominated by the center table, a round, oval, square or rectangular table, usually with a marble top, that stood in the middle of the room.  The center table served as the focal point, drawing all other furniture within its sphere. Along the perimeter of the parlor were sofas and chairs arranged symmetrically.  Other chairs stood in the middle of the room, encircling the center table.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Role of Period Interior Views in the Recreation of Historic Interiors, Part I

Period interior views in the form of paintings, drawings, prints or photographs are an extremely valuable tool in the accurate restoration of historic interiors.  They provide useful and often plentiful visual information about interiors from the past and aid historians in recreating an historic interior where most or all of the decoration and furnishings original to the room have disappeared over the course of time. Additional sources of information are used in the recreation of period interiors, including written historical documents such as household inventories that list most or some of the furnishings in a home at the time of the owner's death; bills of sale for the purchase of decorations and furnishings; family diaries that record changes made to the home; journals detailing household expenditures including the purchase of furniture and other furnishings; newspaper advertisements placed by local merchants dealing in household furnishings, showing what was available to householders in a particular area; and other printed material including household management guides, architectural pattern books, trade periodicals, home decorating books and serial magazines devoted to fashion and culture, all of which provided guidance and advice on how to decorate and furnish a home according to the latest styles and fashions.

The best-case scenario when restoring an historic interior is to uncover a surviving period view of that specific room.  Such a document provides answers to many questions and minimizes guesswork about the past appearance of the interior. Unfortunately, in many instances, period views of the specific historic interior undergoing restoration either no longer exist or were never created.  Under these circumstances, historians must turn to general interior views of the same historical period and focus on those that document rooms of the same type and at the same social level as the interior in question.

Below is a case study that discusses how recreated historic interiors relate to specific and general period interior views.  The essays compare two separate restored interiors to surviving period views of those rooms and to general views of rooms of the same historical period and type.  The interiors include the dining room of the Morse-Libby Mansion in Portland, Maine, and the drawing room of Lyndhusrt in Tarrytown, New York.  Both rooms are part of fully restored historic houses that are now museums.

Fig.1  Morse-Libby Mansion, Portland, Maine. Photograph, 
1910-1925. Victoria Society of Maine, Morse-Libby
Mansion, Portland, ME
In  1858, New Orleans hotel entrepreneur Ruggles Sylvester Morse began construction of his Italianate style brownstone-clad summer house in Portland, Maine (fig. 1).  Maine was the perfect location to build a house for use during the summer months.  Summers in Maine were temperate compared to the intense heat and high humidity associated with the season in Louisiana, where Morse and his wife Olive Ring Merrill Morse spent the rest of the year.  Born and raised in Maine, Morse clearly set out to build an elaborate house that proclaimed to Portland's residents the success and wealth he achieved since leaving the state to make his fortune.

Morse commissioned the recently established New York City cabinetmaking and decorating firm of Gustave Herter to furnish and decorate the interiors of his Portland house.  Herter devised interior schemes that integrated the furniture with the wall and ceiling decoration.  Each of the public rooms on the first floor, including the reception room, drawing room, dining room and library, was decorated and furnished in a different historical revival style. In keeping with the dictates of fashion during the mid-nineteenth century, the dining room was decorated in the Renaissance Revival style, which was considered appropriate to this type of interior because of its masculine, solemn quality and overt classicism.

A photograph of the dining room (fig. 2) from c.1900 clearly illustrates the architectural woodwork, furniture, lighting fixtures and floor covering supplied by Herter's firm approximately forty years earlier. Ruggles and Olivia Morse made no changes to the interiors of their Maine summer home, keeping the rooms very much as they appeared when completed in 1860. Following the death of her husband in 1893, Olive Morse sold the property in 1894 to Joseph Ralph Libby and his wife Helen Louisa Larrabee Libby.  The sale of the house included most of the furniture made by Herter as well as carpets, window curtains and lighting fixtures.  Despite the fact that the decoration and furnishings were old fashioned by the 1890s, the Libby family made only minor changes, essentially preserving intact the interiors created by Gustave Herter in the middle of the nineteenth century.  A comparison of the photograph, dating from the Libby family's period of occupancy, with the actual dining room (fig. 3) shows how this interior survived virtually unaltered over time. Consequently, only minor restoration was required to return the room to its appearance in the mid-nineteenth century.  The c.1900 photograph provided detailed information about the few dining room furnishings that were changed by later owners, such as the upholstery on the dining chairs.  Visible in the photograph is the original upholstery, an embossed and polychromed leather.  This period view was critical to determining the appearance of the 1860 upholstery treatment, which has been reproduced as part of the accurate recreation of the mid-nineteenth-century dining room.


Fig. 2.  Dining room. Morse-Libby Mansion, Portland, Maine. Photograph, c.1900. Victoria Society of Maine, Morse-Libby Mansion, Portland, ME

Fig. 3.  Dining room. Morse-Libby Mansion, Portland, Maine. Victoria Society of Maine, Morse-Libby Mansion, Portland, ME

A portrait by the New York artist Seymour Joseph Guy (1824-1910), titled The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining Room, depicts Mrs. Robert Gordon and her children in the dining room of their fashionable New York City townhouse (fig. 4). The cornice surmounting the walls and the moldings and center medallion on the ceiling indicate that the house was built in the Italianate style, the same architectural style found at the Morse-Libby house. While the walls of the Morse-Libby dining room are paneled from floor to ceiling, those in the Gordon dining room are paneled only at the level of the dado, or lower one-third of the wall.  The chairs in the Gordons' dining room, like those in the dining room of the Morse residence, are upholstered in leather. During the Victorian period leather was considered an ideal covering for the seats of dining chairs, as it was durable, difficult to soil or stain and could be easily wiped clean.  Several of the furnishings in the Gordon dining room are in the Renaissance Revival style, such as the walnut sideboard standing against the wall on the right side of the room.  The Morse-Libby dining room includes a large Renaissance Revival sideboard placed in a niche and a pair of smaller buffets flanking the fireplace.  Period interior views such as the Seymour Guy portrait, which clearly depicts the tablewares arranged on the Gordon sideboard, provide valuable information about the types of objects that the Morse family would have displayed on their sideboard and two buffets.

Fig. 4.  Seymour Joseph Guy (American, 1824-1910). The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining Room, 1866. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Despite its large scale and opulent decoration, the Morse-Libby house was considered a "villa" rather than a mansion during the Victorian period. Ruggles Sylvester Morse deliberately chose to build his villa in the city; however, the most ideal setting for a villa according to architectural theorists of the nineteenth century was the countryside.  Truer to the villa ideal was Knoll, built 1838 to 1842 in Tarrytown, New York, for William Paulding, a former mayor of New York City, and his son Philip Paulding (fig. 5). Dramatically sited on a promontory overlooking the Hudson River, Paulding's new villa was designed in the Gothic Revival style by New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892).  The surrounding landscape perfectly complemented the picturesque architecture of the house with its asymmetrical plan, varied outline and irregular massing.  

Fig. 5.  Alexander Jackson Davis (American, 1803-1892). Knoll for William
and Philip R. Paulding, Tarrytown, New York, 1838. South and east elevations.
Watercolor and ink on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Davis was responsible for the design of the interior as well as the exterior of the Pauldings' villa.  The first-floor public rooms were decorated in the Gothic style, featuring vaulted ceilings with ribs, clustered columns, paneled doors with carved tracery and door and window frames surmounted by arched hoods. In order to achieve a full integration of furniture and decoration, Davis designed for the interiors more than fifty pieces of furniture in the Gothic Revival style.

In 1864, Philip Paulding sold the property to wealthy New York inventor and entrepreneur George Merritt, who changed the name of the house from Knoll to Lyndhurst.  Unlike the second owners of the Morse-Libby house, who essentially maintained the residence as it appeared when owned by Ruggles and Olive Morse, the Merritts made extensive changes to the interiors of the Paulding house and introduced many new furnishings. The alterations were overseen by the original architect of Lyndhurst, Alexander Jackson Davis, who also designed for the Merritts in 1865 an extensive addition that almost doubled the size of the house (fig. 6). The addition of the wing, which included a large tower, essentially transformed the residence from a villa to a mansion.

Fig. 6.  Alexander Jackson Davis (American, 1803-1892). Lyndhurst for George Merritt, Tarrytown, New York, 1865. West elevation and plan. Watercolor, ink and graphite on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY  

Two photographs of the Lyndurst drawing room from c.1870 show how the room appeared when the house was occupied by the Merritt family (figs. 7 & 8).  The redecorated drawing room included painted patterns on the vaulted ceiling, a wall-to-wall carpet with a Rococo Revival design, a large sculpture of Cupid and Psyche in the bay window and a suite of carved rosewood parlor furniture in the Rococo Revival style.  The continuity that Davis had achieved in his interior scheme for the Pauldings' drawing room was lost during the redecoration for the Merritts.  Rococo Revival furnishings such as the parlor suite and carpet contrasted with the Gothic Revival decoration on the walls and ceiling.

Fig. 7.  Drawing room. Lyndhurst, Tarrytown, New York. Photograph, c.1870. Lyndhurst, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Fig. 8.  Drawing room. Lyndhurst, Tarrytown, New York. Photograph, c.1870. Lyndhurst, National Trust for Historic Preservation
As currently restored, the Lyndhusrt drawing room (fig.  9) approximates the appearance of the room during the Pauldings' period of ownership (1838-1864).  Due to the lack of visual documentation of the drawing room from the Paulding era, the recreation is based primarily on written sources such as Davis's specifications for the interiors and an 1856 household inventory that identifies the furnishings in all the rooms of the Pauldings' home, including the drawing room. In the absence of interior views from the Paulding period, it is difficult to ascertain how the drawing room actually appeared when Davis completed the house in 1842. Substantially more is known about the decoration and furnishings of the Merritts' drawing room, which is well documented in the two interior views from c.1870.

Fig. 9.  Drawing room. Lyndhurst, Tarrytown, New York. Photograph©Lyndhurst, National Trust for Historic Preservation
The recreation of the Paulding drawing room includes grain-painted finishes on the window and door frames, interior shutters and baseboards, undecorated monochromatic ceiling and walls, a geometrically patterned wall-to-wall carpet with trelliswork and lozenge-shaped rosettes and Gothic Revival furniture based on Davis's designs.  The restored Paulding drawing room bears some similarity to the parlor depicted in the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Augustus Carter, painted in 1848 by Nicholas Biddle Kittell (fig. 10).  The walls and ceiling of the Carters' parlor are simply painted a solid color, lacking any sort of pattern.  The floor is covered with a wall-to-wall carpet bearing a design of what appears to be scrolling vines and flowers.  While the Carter parlor lacks the Gothic Revival detailing found in the Paulding drawing room, it is furnished with richly upholstered Gothic Revival furniture, including a sofa, armchair, window seat and a reception chair.  The center table, by contrast, is in the Grecian or Late Classical style.

Fig. 10.  Nicholas Biddle Kittell (American, 1822-1894). Mr. and Mrs. Charles Augustus Carter, 1848. Oil on canvas. Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY