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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Maymont Visit

I was excited when I arrived at “Maymont,” the magnificent Gilded Age mansion in Richmond, Virginia. I had not visited for years and that morning I was going to meet the Curator, Dale Wheary, for a chat about the interiors. Built in 1893 by the Dooley’s, a wealthy family in Richmond, Maymont is a wonderful example of what is called the Victorian “Romanesque” period---the building and decorating of the house spans the years from 1893 to 1925. Within you will find Tiffany windows, as beautiful as any you might imagine, with wonderful plastered ceilings, a charming Swan bed and a well preserved historic house museum which Dale has been the curator of for over 30 years.

Ms. Wheary told me how before the Maymont Foundation took over the house, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department had the job of the maintaining the mansion. As is often the case with Historic House Museum’s, the Dooley’s had left no endowment to care for and curate the museum. She showed me a good example of what happens when well meaning but uninformed “restorations” are done. In the downstairs parlor there is much plaster ornamentation on the ceilings and walls, which was originally gilded. During the period the Parks and Recreation Department had oversight of the mansion the Department simply used gold radiator paint to do the job of the plaster restoration (OMG!). Wisely using this as a teaching tool, Dale decided to leave a small plaster rose unrestored to contrast with the properly restored gilding of the delicate plasterwork on the wall above the mantel. Visually, the visitor is quite shocked to see the contrast.

There are so many things about the house that are fascinating. For instance , there is no wallpaper in the house as the Dooley’s preferred the walls hand painted or stenciled and they did use silk damask upholstered walls in the two drawing rooms . The draperies in the home are amazingly almost all original and on all the windows you will find the original venetian blinds that were an excellent way to control light streaming into the room, in fact you will find the original ventian blinds on all the windows of the house. The opulence in draperies that are associated with the Victorian era especially in a house as significant as “Maymont,” is not really present; certainly the textiles used were of very fine quality, but the window treatments are not excessively lavish. As a designer I can see that whomever choose them had good instincts about the draperies as they frame the windows that look out on a beautiful vista. She seemed to recognize that there is so much ornamentation within the rooms anything more ornate would be way too much aesthetically.

Dale Weary has steered the restoration of this treasured historic house from a much neglected monolith to a jewel. Her passion for detail and “getting it right” is evident throughout and never more so than in the recently restored ‘below stairs” exhibit that is superb. The new exhibit reflects the lives and duties of the many African American workers in the home. With the accompanying cultural material information, this exhibit is a wonderful example of showing the visitor the world these household staff members lived in.

As she walked me through the beautiful rooms, Ms. Wheary mentioned often that the Maymont Council (the preservation support group now in its 27th year that helps fund conservation and restoration projects) are wonderful stewards of the Mansion. She showed me a little booklet that is a wish-list of sorts with objects or future projects listed along with photographs and an estimated cost associated with them. From small requests to those in the thousands it was a great tool to see at a glance what was needed.

Dale Wheary and her staff have done a magnificent job in restoring, maintaining and curating the museum and I can’t imagine the Dooley’s being anything but pleased and proud that Maymont is in such competent and caring hands. Lucky Maymont, lucky us…

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Helping Hand...

Recently I spent some time with the young lady who was an intern for me and, as she was talking about her bleak job outlook, I found myself trying to strategize with her about her future---perhaps looking in the “mirror” in a different way, taking control and making her own opportunities.

She and her peers are so excited at this point in their lives and they have just accomplished a great feat---graduation! I would never want to shut them and their enthusiasm down with a curt, “Well, you know, NOBODY is hiring right now, have you thought about the food services industry?” So, I say to those of us who they turn to for advice, help them think outside the box. Don’t say you don’t know anyone who is hiring (that’s probably true in the curatorial field), but tell them to create a job by selling their knowledge to someone who does not usually think they need a person with this education helping them with their business.

Thinking outside the box, as it were, is the best way to come up with a job or business that will match their skills. Real Estate, local government, and Historic Preservation Societies are the first place one would think of that would need the skills of a young historian, especially if they are willing to piece together their jobs in a small “chunk” size that will be more affordable in today’s economy. For example, tell them to pitch to a real estate office that often has historic properties to sell, a service researching the information about what is available tax wise to someone who purchased this property. They could also add a history of the house for another fee---the trick is to keep the fees small and make money by volume. These days a simple, “You know you can get a tax break by buying this house,” does not cut it, people want to see a report or evidence that it can benefit them tax wise to purchase this home. A new graduate could charge a flat fee and work for many realtors. Or how about contacting a set designer or art director through the website, and send a letter offering to do research for them for their next project that features historical interiors, architecture or material culture.

Deciding where their interest lies is a major component in this next piece of advice. The best way to find out their passion and gain valuable experience is to volunteer at a historic site near where they live and get to know the staff so that they will be the first in line when a job does come around. Suggesting that they hone their skills in grant research and writing is something else that is currently very needed and with few people schooled in the proper way to go about the process. They have just graduated with the skills to research and analyze historic properties so connecting with a local appraising office is a place they could give out their cards and sell their ideas.

To her credit she was very respectful and listened as I came up with two or three ideas that she could put into action immediately. I am sure I sounded like I was very naïve as I spun the ideas and tried to get her excited about their potential to, if not make a living wage, at least be something to keep her active and engaged in her quest to find the perfect fit for her.

I have been very lucky in my career and I think it is because I have always done what I wanted to for the most part. I was blessed with an optimistic outlook no matter what befell me. I forget that lots of people do not have an entrepreneur’s constitution, and to be successful you certainly need a strong one.

This being said, I have also learned that when you float an idea that seems “out there” you definitely are blessed to have someone listening to you who takes the idea and without prejudice helps you flesh out the pluses and minuses of the proposal. These people are few and far between and I have found that when you find someone with great patience and listening ear, hang on to them as a friend or contemporary…or marry them as I did.

I have no idea whether or not she has gone on and taken any of my advice. I do know, however, that she knows that she can always find a willing listener in me if she needs one.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Aesthetic Interior- 1870-1895

I have many visitors to our site asking about this beautiful period . They will find design elements throughout their Victorian homes especially carved on the fireplace mantels that are expressly Aesthetic in origin and baffle the homeowner as to what inspired this design.

I thought you might like to learn a little about this period overall so I have taken the text on the period from my website, and placed it here on my blog. The text is by Judith Gura, a very talented writer and scholar who also wrote a must have book “The Abrams Guide to Historic Interiors” from which this text is attributed. Hope you enjoy and that this helps you find Aesthetic period details in your home.

The Aesthetic interior is beguiling in its exoticism, and almost dizzying in its mix of color, pattern, and decoration. It resists classification, mixing elements from diverse sources in idiosyncratic renderings according to the designer’s whim and client’s preference, but it invariably provides a surfeit of visual stimulation. It is either the subject of instant attraction, or immediate dislike.

Wallpaper is at the height of fashion for Aesthetic interiors, in coordinated patterns that enable designers to create intricate decorative effects. On walls divided into three sections—dado below, field or filling above, and frieze just below the ceiling—a different pattern and variation of color is applied to each area. The dado pattern is the most intense, the frieze the most elaborate, and the field the most understated, since it also serves as background for hanging paintings or prints. The frieze is often defined by a wood rail that serves also as a shelf for china display.

Colors, in wall covering, textiles, and carpets, lean toward deep, subtly shades, such as dull greens, browns, and blues, with citrine as a frequent accent. Often there are shimmery accents.

Window treatments probably have patterned fabrics, often in motifs that suggest the Asian influence, which is a common theme of this period.

In accessories, Japanese and other Eastern sources provide many of the forms as well as the decorative inspiration for striking ceramics and metalwork—the Aesthetic era produced many objects of exceptional charm and originality.

Chandeliers and lamps are as important, or more important, for their decorative value as for their efficiency as illumination. The concept of “art” furniture, rejecting the commercialism of most industrially made design, is an important contribution of the movement. Aesthetic furniture generally avoids the weightiness of most Victorian-era pieces, and its light-scaled forms reflect the influence of the Eastern aesthetic. The silhouettes of chests, exemplified by William Godwin’s Anglo-Japanese designs, may suggest Japanese cabinetry. Others might be painted or incised with images of stylized birds and foliage. Many items of furniture are painted or lacquered black or, later in the Aesthetic period, made of light-toned mahogany or satinwood. They are often carved with openwork motifs drawn from Oriental objects.

- text by Judith Gura, author "The Abrams Guide to Historic Interiors"

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Textile Blog: Interior Textiles of the Mid-Nineteenth Century

I ran across this blog while going thru my notes recently and after checking it out I was so impressed with the scholarship and information that I felt it was important to give everyone a chance to visit it and learn from the authors impressive knowledge base. I do warn you that you need to be prepared for getting lost in the wide breath of information on not only historic textiles but textiles in general. Enjoy!

The Textile Blog: Interior Textiles of the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A new look for Locust Grove

I am really excited about the new restoration going on at Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky.

From the looks of the images on our Featured Museum page the work was beautifully done and the symposium on the weekend of June 26-27th sounds like it should not be missed. It is always a daunting task to a museum’s staff to undertake such a large project, and this one was handled by some of the best professionals and companies in the business.

If you have a chance, take the time to either attend the symposium, or visit this wonderful mansion.

I know I’m going to.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Historic Adobe Homes

I want to draw your attention to the beautiful trio of articles in the latest Early American Life Magazine concerning the wonderful adobe homes in Santa Fe, N.M. In celebration of their 400 year old anniversary this year Santa Fe is holding many events to showcase these historic dwellings that are among the oldest in our nation.

Written by Jean Marie Andrews, Honoring His Ancestors”, Larry E. Johnson “Colonial Santa Fe” and Victor A. Walsh, “Preserving Adobe” these informative and very interesting articles do such a good job at shining a spotlight on these historic structures. Early American Life does a great service by giving us an opportunity to learn about a very important part of our American House History. I loved reading about these beautiful homes and their history. I also want to add that the articles are accompanied by very beautiful photographs taken by Peter Ogilvie, Ed Richardson, Larry E. Johnston and Melvin Sweet.

Seek out a copy of Early American Life and read these great articles you will be wanting to book your trip to Santa Fe to see for yourself how America truly is so diverse and beautiful in so many ways

Monday, May 17, 2010

Visit the 1768 Jeremiah Lee Mansion

The historic seacoast town of Marblehead, Massachusetts is privileged to have in its midst one of the finest late colonial homes in America. A flourishing seaport, colonial marblehead was about the tenth largest in Britain’s North American colonies just before the Revolution and the second largest town in Massachusetts. The downtown area includes nearly 300 houses built before 1775 – the largest concentration on this continent, along with Newport, RI – and nearly 800 built before 1840. The mansion built in 1766-68 for Colonel Jeremiah Lee, the most affluent merchant in the province at that time, was one of the largest and most elaborately decorated homes of its time in America, and still retains nearly all of its original structural elements and most of its original decorative finishes. These include intricate woodwork carving in the rococo style and a soaring central stair-hall lined with mahogany wainscoting that is unique in its use as an opulent wall treatment, and two sets of rare original mid-18th century wallpapers: a block-printed pattern with Chinese scenes (the only example of that type still on the walls of its original home) and a set of magnificent hand-painted English grissaille mural papers that were unusual at that time and are the only such wall treatments in the world surviving in place. (The other surviving set is one of only two others known from that time, both formerly in homes in Albany, NY; it is installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing.) Emulating an aristocratic English mansion built of stone, all four facades of the Lee Mansion are faced with long wooden facing boards, 10” tall, with long beveled edges and vertical scores every two feet that visually simulated cut stone ashlar blocks. To further suggest the appearance and texture of stone, grains of sand in colors ranging from black to almost clear were thrown or ‘strewn’ onto the surface of the paint while still wet, creating a rough surface that would sparkle in the sunlight like cut stone. The grand residence was visited in 1789 by General George Washington during his inaugural tour of New England. Newly elected as the nation’s first President, the Revolutionary War leader came “out of [his] way” to Marblehead to thank the townspeople for their service and inordinate sacrifice during the war, which left the maritime town economically devastated, with failed businesses and nearly 500 widows. The Mansion was preserved because after 1775, no families owned it to make changes, and for a full century it was a bank and commercial office building before the Marblehead Historical Society purchased it in 1909. The Mansion comprises over 10,000 square feet of living space in 18 rooms. All but one are open to the public. They are filled with a museum-quality collection of 18th and early 19th-century decorative arts, paintings and artifacts with Marblehead history and connections. Visitors are captivated by the Mansion’s striking appearance, the magnificent painted wallpapers, the high-quality collection on display, and Col. Lee’s intriguing story.

The Lee Mansion is open June through October, Tuesday-Saturday. 10-4. For further information contact:

Guest Blogger- Former Curator Judy Anderson