At first blush, we think of museums as illustrious storehouses of art and artifacts such as the Smithsonian Institution’s complex of 19 scientific, historical and art museums on Washington’s National Mall.
But in ever-increasing numbers, curious “cultural tourists” are also poking their heads into much more modest and personal houses of treasures.
Houses, literally. “House museums,” as they’re called, range from fabulous mansions and plantation homes where people can glimpse vestiges of the lifestyles of the rich and famous to humbler, locally significant, sometimes eccentric abodes.
Every decent-sized town has one or two. They’re rarely jammed with visitors, and most don’t bring in much revenue, if any at all. Foundations and historical societies and local governments must step in to keep the places open. Many morph into bed-and-breakfast inns whose proprietors eagerly assume the role of doting docent.
Carol and I have spent hundreds of pleasant hours examining such places, and I’d like to tell you about some of them. As you see, I’m already making lavish use of Carol’s photographs for this virtual tour.
Here are six vastly different examples of notable U.S. house museums:
The George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware
I start here solely because Halloween is nigh, and Carol took the neat photograph (above) of this house’s basement taproom, once the scene of raucous theme parties. To bring in alcoholic beverages for one of them during the Great Depression before Prohibition ended, a seaplane landed out front on the Delaware River.
The High Federal-style 1804 Read House, on the strand in the state’s manicured colonial capital, was the home of the scion of George Read, a Delaware statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Adorned with gardens and a vista of the wharf where William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, first set foot in the New World, the house has the look of a prim, look-but-don’t-touch place.
Au contraire. It was a veritable fun house, from its rathskeller to its parlor, where every so often the staff would stage a not-terribly-reverent funeral of a departed resident, complete with coffin, mourning jewelry, death mask, and music.
George II himself, though, was a miserly, grumpy, self-important sort who often ran for Congress, losing every time. Yet no one could deny that his house, which humbled nearby taverns and brothels with its gilded fanlights, balustrade with Grecian urns, and elaborate bas-reliefs on its parlor mantels, was a stunner. Read, though, foundered in business and died bankrupt in 1836.
The fun came later, under the watch of other owners. Lydia and Philip Laird, both in-laws of the state’s fabled Du Pont family, for instance, commissioned a fancy history of New Castle that was printed on the dining room wallpaper, and they turned the basement larder into a private speakeasy that hosted ribald drinking bashes during Prohibition.
The Lairds helped Delaware rediscover the town where Penn’s Quakers, Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch, and a colony of Swedes had once lived. The Read House was, and remains, its centerpiece.
Seelye Mansion, Abilene, Kansas
The place they call Kansas’s Tara — after the plantation home in the sweeping Civil War saga Gone With the Wind — was built with the considerable profits of a salesman of bogus health tonics, better known as snake-oil.
Just before and after 1900, Alfred B. Seelye’s medicine wagons fanned out into 14 states, where his salesmen, whom he called “drummers,” touted his “Wasa-Tusa” cure-all potion and “Ner-vene” nerve medicine. All were concocted in a factory next to his Abilene home.
Seelye’s Georgian-style manor boasted 11 bedrooms, 18 closets, a Tiffany fireplace in the grand hall, and light fixtures personally chosen by pioneer inventor Thomas Edison at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.
The patent-medicine business and the family fortune dwindled in the 19-teens and ’20s with the advent of food and drug regulations, income taxes, and exposés about phony nostrums. The grand house became tattered, but Seelye’s daughters Marion and Helen, who had inherited it, rebuffed many offers to buy it. They relented in 1982 when Terry Tietjens, who owned a resort in northeast Kansas, agreed not only to purchase the place but also to adopt Marion and Helen, then in their mid-80s, and assure them they could stay in the home for life.
Despite a damaging fire, Tietjens went through with the deal, fixing up the place, and — in a change that the Seelye sisters came to enjoy — opening this Tara in a Cow Town to tours.
Roseland Cottage and Ice House, Woodstock, Connecticut
What’s wrong with this picture?
In 1846, Henry Chandler Bowen, a dry-goods merchant; publisher; proper Congregationalist; pillar of Brooklyn, New York, society; a founder of the Republican Party; and an amateur horticulturist with a passion for roses — remember the roses — builds a glorious, Gothic Revival-style summer house in his hometown — Woodstock, in Connecticut’s northeast “Quiet Corner.”
Prosperous Woodstock is full of impressive Federal-style homes, uniformly painted white.
Borrowing from the showy bushes in his formal gardens, Bowen paints his “Roseland Cottage” — as wealthy people liked to call their getaway places, no matter how grand — shocking pink, not just once but 13 times in the 50 years he summered there.
Around Independence Day each July, Bowen threw the party of all 19th-century parties. He presented respectable Woodstock with calling cards for an afternoon of lemonade, Strauss waltzes, fireworks, and a whirl of croquet. Four sitting U.S. presidents made the scene. One year, after Ulysses S. Grant celebrated a strike on the bowling alley inside Bowen’s barn by lighting his customary cigar, the host, betraying his Puritan stock, informed the president that smoking and drinking were not permitted at Roseland.
The old general stamped his stogie out — but took a room in town that night.
Eventually the ornate house, the barn, the rose gardens, and an 1870s ice house came into the hands of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which stabilized, restored, and painted the structures.
Longwood, in Natchez, Mississippi
Longwood is the “Unfinished Symphony” of historic restoration. This stunning antebellum home — the largest octagonal house still standing in America — has not been brought back to the splendor that cotton baron Haller Nutt had in mind when he put northern craftsmen and plantation slaves to work building it, beginning in 1860.
And so long as the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez owns it, it never will be completed.
Instead, Longwood is a freeze-frame testament to the demise of an opulent era when Natchez, a city of many mansions on the Mississippi River, boasted 11 millionaires — more per capita than any city in America. Nutt was one of them.
With the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861 and the spasms of rhetorical venom against all things Yankee, the Philadelphia artisans who were constructing Longwood put down their tools and fled north while the fleeing was good. They had completed only the exterior; 24 rooms inside remained unfinished and nearly empty.
Undaunted, Nutt turned his crew of slaves toward completing the basement as temporary living quarters. But because he, like many wealthy planters, had opposed the South’s departure from the Union, fellow Mississippians burned his crops; then marauding Yankees stole every window frame, mantel, and chimney cap piled outside Longwood and made off with Nutt’s wagons and livestock. He died a broke and broken man in 1864.
His widow, Julia, and their children hung onto the brick “Oriental villa,” as it was described, surmounted by a “Persian dome,” surviving for a time on weeds and soured milk. The estate stayed in family hands until 1968, when its owners donated it to the garden club.
Today, walking through Haller Nutt’s Longwood, admiring the few furnishings — Haller’s gout chair among them — one can still imagine the primitive, haunting scene of a century and a half ago. Exposed to the elements through uncompleted arch windows, Longwood’s rusted paint cans, discarded tools, and never-completed woodwork are still in place, a ghostly symbol of the finality of war.
Dowse Sod House, Comstock, Nebraska
About six kilometers from the speck of a town called Comstock, population 60, stands a remarkable house, built in 1900. Remarkable, and quite the antithesis of a mansion.
It’s made of “Nebraska marble.” Quarried right out back in river bottomlands, this is not stone. It is old-fashioned Great Plains sod — tufts of coarse bluestem grass, clumped in rich soil and held together by an intricate web of roots.
Lacking enough trees for wood to build a house in 1900, homesteader William Ryan Dowse improvised. He sliced long, deep strips of sod with what was called a “grasshopper breaking plow,” cut them into slices about 75 centimeters long, and stacked them — grass-side down — in rows that became the walls of his prairie home. Scarce wooden boards were laid across them to form joists and the outline of an attic. More sod was arranged atop the roof paper, and openings were cut for windows and doors.
Finally, cloth was hung below the ceiling to catch most of the dirt that kept falling from the ceiling onto the family below.
The Dowses moved away, and for a time the “soddy,” as such houses were called, stood empty. Like thousands of other sod houses abandoned by families driven out by locusts, prairie fires, blizzards, droughts, epidemics, Indian attacks, and homesickness — the Dowses’ empty home would have disintegrated had not neighbors and a descendant of Bill Dowse decided to restore the place. One of the jobs was a complete replastering, using old-time material made from sand, clay, and hog’s hair.
Today, travelers heading for western Nebraska’s sandhills may spot a simple, handmade sign pointing down a road to William Dowse’s soddy. If they follow it, they’ll find, to borrow the title of a famous American children’s book, a most interesting and authentic “Little House on the Prairie.”
The Biltmore, Asheville, North Carolina
I’d be remiss to omit what many believe is the most magnificent house museum of all.
Not even a multimillionaire would attempt a wholesale restoration of the 1.5-hectare, 225-room Biltmore House. That’s right, the structure alone is that enormous. Not surprisingly, art collector and world traveler George W. Vanderbilt’s 1895 stunner is the largest private home in America.
The name was Vanderbilt’s contraction of “Bildt,” the region in Holland where his family originated, and “more,” an old English word meaning rolling countryside.
The mammoth home is so challenging to maintain that the staff must single out only limited projects each year. An emphasis one year was on just the mansion’s nine 16th-century Flemish tapestries.
In the 1950s, the Biltmore first opened to the public the Louis XV-style bedroom of Vanderbilt’s wife, Edith. When its wall and bed coverings were restored in the 1980s, French weavers used the same looms and jacquard cards employed by the original weavers 100 years earlier. It took three years to re-create the silk, brocaded velvet, yellow satin, and trims.
To satisfy the curiosity of visitors who wondered what lay behind the mansion’s infinite number of walls and crannies, the staff began “back of the house” tours of rooms such as Mrs. Vanderbilt’s maid’s quarters and a sub-basement with its boiler room and marble-backed electric circuit-breaker.
Almost since George Washington Vanderbilt began to purchase the 51,000 hectares of farms, woods, and forested hillsides in the late 1880s, his family, which still owns the grand estate, has regarded historic preservation of the Biltmore House and Frederick Law Olmsted gardens as not a project, but a passion.
And Then . . .
There’s one more house I’d have told you about, but I’ve already tried your patience and need to stop here. So I’ll make it your homework assignment to check out Hearst Castle in California.
This story is my penultimate blog for the Voice of America. I’m retiring to hit the road with Carol — with determination to see and write about far more of our great land while she snaps away on her six fine cameras. A farewell from this vantage point will follow next week.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Balustrade. A stairway handrail and the posts that support it.
Brocade. A rich fabric, often of gold or silver thread, with a raised pattern.
Cranny. A narrow space or crevice. The word is customarily combined with another: nook, as in “He looked in every nook and cranny.”
Gout chair. A rolling chair similar to a wheelchair, in which someone suffering from gout can get about without straining inflamed, painful feet.
Jacquard card. A punched card whose pattern corresponds to that of a fabric to be woven in a loom. The process is too complicated to further explain here.
Puritan. A member of a strict, highly structured Protestant community active in the 16th and 17th centuries in Britain and its New England colonies in America.
Rathskeller. From the German, a beer hall in a home or restaurant’s basement.
Scion. The term is taken from biology, in which a scion is the offshoot of a plant. More often, the word describes the descendant — almost always male — of a prominent family.
Speakeasy. An establishment, carefully guarded by a suspicious doorman, that served alcoholic drinks during the Prohibition period from 1923 to 1933, when such sales were banned. Pirate hideouts once carried the name, and a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, woman who sold liquor without a license is said to have advised her customers to “speak easy” if they wanted to buy some.