Category: Travel

Scotland: A Legacy of Cultural Achievement

After two years of planning, the Decorative Arts Trust launched our most ambitious Study Trip Abroad to date. All told nearly eighty members filled three back-to-back excursions to Scotland, a tour appropriately titled “A Legacy of Cultural Achievement.” The itinerary touched on the numerous highlights of Scotland’s rich history as well as the craftsmen and artistic influences that made their way to America.

Beginning in Edinburgh, participants enjoyed a walking tour designed to explore the contrasts between the city’s medieval Old Town and the Enlightenment-era New Town. Laid out in 1767 by a 28-year-old James Craig, the New Town also introduced the group to the architectural sensibilities of Robert Adam, who established the neoclassical idiom there with the construction of the Register Building. City regulations mandated highly finished facades intended to draw fashion-conscious residents across to the more spacious and sanitary portion of the city. These exteriors were a stark contrast to the irregular appearance of the low-cost free stone used throughout the Old Town.

Outside the Edinburgh city limits, we toured numerous country houses connected to the Adam family of architects, including the patriarch William and his sons John, James, and Robert. William was an entrepreneur extraordinaire and supplied building materials for his projects from his own quarries. His exuberant Baroque and Palladian houses and interiors were de rigeur, often featuring plasterwork by master stuccador Thomas Clayton and woodwork from carver and gilder William Strachan. Participants were treated to excellent examples of William’s oeuvre at Arniston and The Drum, both private houses. It was not unusual for one of William’s sons to later complete his father’s designs or modify them to suit later fashions, as in the case of Arniston.

The participation of Scottish decorative arts scholars enhanced our study of the material on view. Stephen Jackson and Godfrey Evans shared the exceptional collection of the Scottish National Museum. Our members gained immensely from the guidance of furniture historian David Jones, who provided in-depth connoisseurship lessons on Scottish cabinetmakers, ensuring that we could distinguish the work of Edinburgh wrights Alexander Peter and William Trotter. David’s gracious instruction enhanced the visits to many of the public and private collections visited, including Dumfries House, Mellerstain, Hopetoun House, Culzean Castle, and Traquair.

Trust members also received a good dose of Scottish history, learning about the clans and their strife that dominated the country’s struggles between the 13th and 16th centuries. Despite generations of political turmoil, Scottish intelligentsia became profoundly influential in Western thought and civilization through the Scottish Reformation and Enlightenment. Edinburgh was known as the Athens of the North and served as a leading center for economic, political, and medical discourse and education.

The connections with America abounded. Participants on our third tour visited Paxton House, furnished by Thomas Chippendale in the “neat and plain” style of furniture preferred by George Washington and his Chesapeake contemporaries. The groups also saw the parallels between the work of Edinburgh cabinetmakers and the furniture of craftsmen such as Robert Walker and Thomas Affleck who emigrated from Scotland to Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively.  Scotland’s central role in the transmission of style to the American colonies was clear, with both countries establishing a cultural and aesthetic identity distinct from English patterns.

The preservation of historic sites and objects defines Scotland’s strong sense of national pride. At Traquair, Scotland’s oldest continuously occupied house, the family now proudly displays items relating to their support of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Jacobite Cause, and their Catholic faith, which was outlawed under sanctions from the government until emancipation in 1829. At Abbotsford, historic curiosities collected by Sir Walter Scott were tied to major figures and events from Scottish history, including William Wallace and the Battle of Culloden. At Bowhill, a house greatly expanded throughout the 19th century, we encountered the Duke of Buccleuch’s new initiatives in the conservation of original wall treatments, not to mention the world-class painting collection of this important Scottish country house. Today, the quest to preserve Scottish heritage in a sustainable manner is resulting in diverse approaches to public sites, such as the Scottish National Trust’s efforts at Newhailes, private charities that preserve family homes such as Hopetoun, and many homes and collections that remain in private hands, such as Balcarres House.

Thanks to the hard and diligent work of our staff, representatives of the Board of Governors, and our colleagues at Specialtours, the three back-to-back study trips (separated by two Highland extensions nonetheless) were our most popular trips to date. Not wishing to rest on our laurels, however, preparations are in full swing for subsequent adventures in Venice and the Veneto in October 2017, Sweden and Denmark in May and June 2018, and Prague and Vienna in October 2018. We are most grateful for the continued enthusiasm and support of the members who attend these wonderful Study Trips Abroad!

Savannah: More than Meets the Eye

Founded in 1733 by British general and social reformer James Oglethorpe, the city of Savannah has remained an important center of commerce and culture ever since. Although it has long outgrown the original boundaries of Oglethorpe’s utopian grid plan, the city’s gorgeous historic center boasts an incredible array of historic structures. For those willing to delve a little deeper, Savannah readily offers up breath-taking collections, which contain fascinating histories amassed over nearly three centuries. For participants in the Trust’s Spring 2017 Symposium, Savannah was truly a city where there is more than meets the eye.

Our program opened with a wonderful lecture by Dale Couch, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Georgia Museum of Art, during which he pointed out that Georgia, and Savannah in particular, has always been current with the latest prevailing trends in style and taste. While many rich Savannah families imported household furnishings from northern manufactories or Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, Georgia-made items possess a unique grace and style. Dale’s observations about a local taste for the trendy were fully borne out during the opening reception at the Green-Meldrim House. Built between 1853 and 1861, the lavishly detailed dwelling is one of the finest examples of Gothic-Revival architecture in the South. During the Civil War, Charles Green lent the house to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman for use as his headquarters. The Green family eventually left Savannah, but, in a stunning turn of events, much of their original furniture was recently discovered in the possession of descendants living in Paris and has returned to Savannah. During the reception, members enjoyed a brand new exhibit featuring highlights of the Green family furniture, curated by Tania Sammons, one of our speakers and a key figure on our symposium planning team.

Our Friday schedule covered some of the oldest sites and earliest history of Savannah. Lecturers discussed a range of topics from Robin Williams’ exceptional talk on the development of the city’s urban plan to Jamie Credle’s introduction to the 20th-century preservation efforts started by a band of community-minded women. After lunch at the Olde Pink House, one of the city’s few surviving 18th-century structures, we enjoyed tours of three noteworthy sites. The John Berrien House, built by the Revolutionary War hero John Berrien in 1791, not only survived a devastating city-wide fire in 1820 but also managed to keep many of its original surfaces hidden away within the walls. Preservation architect David Kelley and historian Maryellen Higgenbotham discovered incredibly rare samples of original wallpaper dating back to the house’s earliest years. Just down the street, the Isaiah Davenport House tells a parallel story, interpreting the life of its namesake, a carpenter and joiner who built many fashionable structures throughout Savannah in the early 19th century, including his own showcase house. The Davenport house was the first success of the city’s preservation movement, which formalized under the auspices of the  Historic Savannah Foundation. In the six decades since, the wildly successful organization has gone on to save hundreds of buildings throughout the city. Our final stop was the fabulous Owens-Thomas House, built 1816-1819 by the fashionable young English architect William Jay in the latest Regency style. The house is one of three sites run by the Telfair Museums and exhibits graceful 19th-century furniture in a beautifully restored interior. The legendary Southern hospitality evident throughout the house extended into the rear garden, where participants enjoyed the chance to rest their feet and relish a scoop (or two!) of Savannah’s famous Leopold’s ice cream.

Saturday turned our focus to Savannah’s architectural heyday during the mid-19th century, when wealthy families commissioned the grand Victorian mansions that became a fixture of the city’s image. Sometimes the figures associated with the buildings rise above their local roles. The Andrew Low house, for instance, was the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, and is now a pilgrimage site for girls in green sashes as well as the history-minded visitors who appreciate the sterling collection on view there. No visit to Savannah would be complete, however, without a visit to the Mercer House. Construction for the family of General Hugh Mercer was interrupted by the Civil War, which prevented any member of the family from ever living there. After a century of various owners, the house experienced a golden age during the 1970s, when it was restored by preservationist and antiquarian Jim Williams. Both the house and Williams sprang to national prominence upon the publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1994, and the release of the feature film three years later. However, the house tells a larger story of the city and the development of the American antiques trade, as Williams was a collector, dealer, and decorative arts scholar in his own right. Much of his collection remains in the house today, and we were greeted by Williams’s sister, Dr. Dorothy Williams Kingery, the current owner. Our final stop was across the street at the home and gallery of local artist Morgan Kuhn. Her loving restoration of a Monterey Square townhouse, which had long been subdivided into apartments, not only returned a fine historic structure to its original glory but exhibits Savannahians’ unabated emphasis on historic preservation.

Our symposium concluded with four compelling lectures on Sunday morning. Rita and Daniel Elliott of the LAMAR Institute related their findings on regional pottery, with a particular focus on Purysburg, SC, just across the border. Historian Kathleen Staples examined the history behind a family quilt long thought to depict a scene from the Civil War but actually dating from the American Revolution. Jenny Garwood of MESDA discussed samplers made by two Low Country girls, Mary Smallwood and Sarah Jones, which featured the Ten Commandments. Our closing lecture by Shannon Browning-Mulliss, Curator of History and Decorative Arts at the Telfair Museum, closed with an important reminder of the importance of using the decorative arts to tell stories of the forgotten figures of history, in this case the enslaved Driver Morris, who received an engraved silver cup from his master in recognition of his bravery during a disastrous storm.

For the Trust, this symposium was a fresh look at a city well known to many. Thanks to the gracious help of local Trust member, and the newest addition to our Board of Governors, Mary Raines, Tania Sammons, and our wonderful hosts and speakers, we enjoyed unprecedented access to the delights of the city, some well known and others known only to locals, complemented by Savannah’s legendary hospitality. We look forward to more adventures in the second half of the year, particularly our 40th anniversary celebration in conjunction with the Fall Symposium in Hartford!

2016 in Review

Throughout 2016, the Decorative Arts Trust’s programs followed one after another in dizzying succession. With more events than ever before, including sold-out domestic symposia and fully subscribed Study Trips Abroad, this has been the busiest year on record, and one packed with wonderful memories.

Our Spring Symposium to Winston-Salem brought the Trust “home,” thanks to the many friends who live in the area and work in the local institutions. Full-access, in-depth tours of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’s reinstalled collections showcased phenomenal objects in new settings. In contrast, many of the city’s museums and cultural organizations occupy 20th-century mansions built by notable families, such as the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, where a stunning collection of paintings complement interiors and furnishings from the 1910s and 20s.

Winchester and the surrounding counties welcomed participants of our Fall Symposium to the breathtaking landscapes of the Shenandoah and Potomac River valleys to explore some of the region’s earliest homes and most important collections. Many of these sites belonged to the friends and families of our country’s founding fathers, and the objects found there showed how the area’s material culture reflects immigration and trade routes extending from Europe and the urban centers of the East Coast.

On the international front, the Spring Study Trip Abroad brought two back-to-back tours to Poland, a country rarely visited by American cultural organizations. From the medieval frescoes of the 13th-century Church of Saint Jacob in Małujowice to the painstakingly reconstructed historic center of Warsaw, the country yielded rich decorative and architectural treasures spanning the country’s long, eventful, and often tragic history.

Our two fall tours, titled Yorkshire in the Age of Chippendale, took Trust participants through some of the greatest country house collections in England. Led by Trust Governor Brock Jobe, we saw more than two-thirds of the known documented Thomas Chippendale furniture in existence. Many of the houses possessed family collections dating back to earlier centuries as well, not to mention fabulous paintings, sculpture, and other decorative arts!

Our calendar was complemented by a flurry of curator-led tours for members, including visits to the Rhode Island furniture show at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Nadelman folk art collection at the New-York Historical Society, and exhibits at Winterthur and the Peabody Essex Museum. As part of our commitment to new and accessible member programming, we also hosted our second special one-day symposium in conjunction with the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “Latrobe and Philadelphia: The Waln House Furniture Revealed and Reconsidered”.

Our phenomenally successful year could not have happened without the enthusiastic participation and support of our members, whose dedication to our mission makes work meaningful for Matt and Christian. 2017 will be an equally exciting year, particularly as we introduce new staff members and more programming to the Trust. Stay tuned!

Winchester: Exploring Virginia’s Northern Valleys

Located in the Shenandoah Valley, and a short distance from the Potomac River Valley, Winchester and the surrounding counties of Virginia occupied a unique place in colonial America and the early republic. Surveyed by George Washington, whose contemporaries considered the fertile valleys to be the Western frontier, the towns and communities that developed there benefitted from both immigration and commercial traffic that left a rich and varied legacy in its historic architecture and decorative arts. Thanks to the expert local help of Nick Powers of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Matthew Webster of Colonial Williamsburg, and Trust Governor Ralph Harvard, participants in our Fall 2016 Symposium enjoyed a phenomenal program, and managed to visit an impressive number of sites and collections.

There could be no better introduction to the region than the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, which hosted our opening lecture and reception. Trust Governor Carol Cadou, Senior Vice President of Historic Preservation & Collections at Mount Vernon, opened the proceedings with her lecture “’Most beautiful groves of sugar trees:’ George Washington’s Shenandoah Valley,” an overview of his explorations of the area as a young surveyor and, later, militia officer. In perhaps a first for the Trust, the festivities of the ever-popular opening reception, held at the MSV’s historic Glen Burnie House, took a back seat to curator Nick Powers’ special tour of the museum’s galleries and its collections.

Born and raised in Winchester, Nick possesses a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of local history, from which we benefited during his Friday morning lecture on Winchester and Frederick County carpenters and cabinetmakers. The trio of following lectures covered many favorite branches of the decorative arts, including Dr. Gene Comstock on Shenandoah Valley pottery, Catherine Hollan on Valley silversmithing, and Mary Robare on local Quaker quilts and the unique Apple Pie Ridge star pattern.

The afternoon program of site visits began with Nick’s own childhood home, Cherry Row, where his parents David and Jenny welcomed us for lunch and a tour of their fabulous collection, ranging from painted boxes and rifles to samplers and quilts. Their stewardship and preservation of the 1794 house represents a labor of love and scholarship as they have slowly taken it back to its original state over many years.

Although a passing rainstorm caused umbrellas to unfurl, it did not dampen enthusiasm for the rest of the afternoon tours of notable Winchester buildings. The Fuller-Moore House, known today for serving as the Civil War headquarters of Stonewall Jackson, was built in 1854 after the Carpenter Gothic designs of Andrew Jackson Downing and was restored in part based on written descriptions from the General and his wife. The Bell House, dating from 1810, was occupied by descendants of the family until this past summer, and still contains a fabulous collection of both local and Baltimore-made goods. The private collection of Dr. Greg Bott charmed participants with its eclectic mix of Valley furniture, fraktur, pottery, samplers, and toys, while the local Masonic lodge boasted its original mid-19th century frescoes.

Saturday’s itinerary shifted northwest into Jefferson County, West Virginia. The morning’s speakers, Matt Webster, John Allen, and Wallace Gusler, all have deep ties to that region, and shared its architectural and material history in the morning’s lectures. Their introduction to the county’s rich history was complemented by a visit to the Shepherdstown Museum, a small but vibrant institution that boasts a collection of local furniture, maps, documents, toys, and a working full-scale model of the first successful steamboat built by James Rumsey, which predated Robert Fulton’s model by twenty years.

Of the four houses on the afternoon’s itinerary, Happy Retreat and Belle Grove are administered by nonprofit institutions. While Belle Grove is now a successful house museum, Happy Retreat, the home of George Washington’s younger brother Charles, was purchased by a foundation in the last year. It is the first Washington family house in Jefferson County to be publicly accessible, and ongoing archaeological excavations and architectural analysis are shedding new light on what Charles’s original house might have looked like.

The afternoon’s private homes, Piedmont and Traveller’s Rest, have both benefitted from dedicated and sympathetic restoration and preservation efforts by their current owners. The stewards of Piedmont were particularly determined, when they acquired the house twenty years ago, to preserve as much original material as possible as a record for future generations. The result, while certainly showing the patina of the intervening centuries, is a spectacular illustration of Piedmont’s history, including original 1818 Dufour scenic wallpaper.

The program of events concluded on Sunday with presentations by Sarah Thomas, a William & Mary doctoral student and one of the Trust’s 2015 Summer Research Scholars, and furniture historian Betsy Davison. Sarah’s lecture covered the broader material culture of Shenandoah County, while Betsy focused specifically on the iconic craftsman Johannes Spitler.

For Matt and Christian, who both went to college “up the Valley” in Lexington, introducing the hidden and overlooked sites of the region to the Trust’s participants felt like sharing a bit of home. We could not have done it without the gracious help our friends, colleagues, and the hosts of the many public and private sites we visited. We are just as excited for next year’s symposia in Savannah and Hartford and look forward to more explorations!

A Chippendale Pilgrimage in Yorkshire

“Star-studded” is not usually a term we would use to describe a Trust Study Trip Abroad, but this fall’s much-anticipated trip to Yorkshire certainly fit the bill.* For the adherents to our field, figures such as tour leader and Trust Governor Brock Jobe, historians Adam Bowett and Mark Westgarth, or curators and conservators such as James Lomax and Patrick Dingwall are highly regarded and recognizable figures.

Although the tour focused on Yorkshire and the era of Thomas Chippendale, every site we encountered spoke to England’s extraordinarily long history, stretching all the way from Roman fortifications up to present efforts of preservation and presentation. Over the course of our nine-day exploration, however, we encountered more than two-thirds of the known furniture documented to Chippendale and even made a pilgrimage to the great cabinetmaker’s hometown of Otley, where he is commemorated in a full-length bronze statue. Despite seeing a record number of houses, our group could only scratch the surface of Yorkshire’s rich architectural history and collections!

The first stage of our itinerary benefitted from the expert hand of Peter Brown, former director of the York Civic Trust. Human occupation in Yorkshire reaches back into prehistory, and much of the city, including Peter’s own house, boasts surviving architecture from the Middle Ages. Long an economic and religious hub of northern England, York came into its own as a cultural center during the 18th century, resulting in elegant architecture such as the Assembly Rooms, considered England’s first neoclassical structure, and Fairfax House, an exquisite Georgian townhouse. Now a museum, the house interprets the fascinating years of the Georgian period. Appropriately for our group, Fairfax House partnered with the Decorative Arts Trust for our 2011-12 Curatorial Internship Grant, a position held by Louisa Brouwer, a Winterthur alumna who is now Keeper of Art and Place at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, England. During our special evening reception and tour we enjoyed the spectacular results of Louisa’s furnishing plan for the museum.

After our introduction to the era and region, we proceeded on a Grand Tour of country houses. Some of the houses–particularly Nostell Priory, Temple Newsam, and Harewood House–have developed into full-fledged museums through family trusts or associations with civic organizations such as the National Trust. Our group not only benefitted from the expertise of the professional staff at these sites, but enjoyed a level of access well beyond that of the casual tourist, with curators and collection managers opening up pieces of furniture and displaying books and manuscripts for our inspection and appreciation!

With the benefit of the combined expertise of Brock Jobe, Adam Bowett, conservator Ian Fraser, and curator James Lomax, the collection of Temple Newsam, also the seat of The Chippendale Society’s collection, proved especially memorable. Of the documented Chippendale pieces found there, one of the most exciting is an unusual dressing table with a marquetry top, originally built for the circular dressing room at Harewood House. Normally kept far behind stanchions, Adam and Ian moved the top into the window bay to allow for close inspection, while discussing the techniques behind historic marquetry and the scientific research harnessed to determine the original appearance of the piece. Thankfully, the piece will not only be conserved but also reproduced with period-accurate materials and techniques to showcase the colorful effect of Chippendale’s original marquetry design, all in time for his 300th birthday in 2018 .

Other houses we visited–such as Burton Agnes, Newby Hall, Sledmere, and Scampston–are still primarily family homes. Although open to the public on a regular basis, their role has remained as the center of working estate farms for centuries. The furnishings of these houses are still lived with on a daily basis, and while the collections may not be as intact as those of, say, a National Trust property like Nostell Priory, they still possess stellar examples of decorative arts, including pieces attributed to Chippendale. The challenge of preserving these houses and collections is that most stately homes are prohibitively expensive to run. Opening the grounds and showpiece rooms to the public goes a bit towards making ends meet. Thus, at many of these houses, we enjoyed all-too-brief excursions into their wonderful grounds and formal gardens, many of which were designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown in the 18th century. At many properties, the grounds and gardens draw more visitors than the house itself. The estate managers and guides hope to leverage this interest in the out-of-doors by drawing guests inside by one way or another. The television and cinema industries can also provide financial assistance. Two of our sites, Castle Howard and Newby Hall, served as filming locations for the award-winning productions of Brideshead Revisited and Victoria, respectively. Perhaps not the most academic of reasons for drawing crowds, but effective nonetheless.

The attraction of exploring Yorkshire’s collections was to see how these objects continue to play a role in family life. One especially spectacular space was the Tapestry Room of Newby Hall: the most complete Chippendale interior remaining in situ in the world. As with many of his top commissions, Chippendale collaborated with Robert Adam to produce a harmonious and appealing interior, in this instance to complement a spectacular set of tapestry hangings imported from France. Thankfully, the successive generations of family residing there realized the chamber’s importance, and the space remains largely as it did in the 1760s, including a suite of French-inspired cabriole chairs with their original tapestry upholstery.

Several of the sites we visited are strictly private dwellings. For many participants, these were the most memorable, as we were welcomed by the owners themselves and offered the chance to learn about their adventures in caring for an historic home. To a person, every owner was both proud and conscious of his or her responsibility to maintain the property for the next generation, even while figuring out new ways of making the property manageable for modern life, which often includes raising a family in a very imposing structure. It was an honor to visit these private spaces and hear the introspective stories of their custodians.

This trip in particular was the experience of a lifetime, and the Trust owes a great debt of gratitude to Governor and Winterthur’s Professor of American Decorative Arts Emeritus Brock Jobe, who created the itinerary and led both tours with unfailing enthusiasm and energy. Everyone involved, from newcomers to the Trust to long-time professionals and collectors, learned much and enjoyed the benefit of Brock’s expertise as well as the insight shared by his many colleagues who participated.

* We’re are not quite sure we ought to count Christian’s unknowingly sitting next to a supermodel in a London Bar into the final celebrity talley.

The Isaiah Davenport House

Although Yorkshire and Winchester loom large on the calendar, here at the Trust we’re always looking ahead to future events. The schedule for our Spring 2017 Symposium to Savannah is rapidly being finalized before registration opens in October. One of the sites that has been on the agenda since this program was first envisioned is the Isaiah Davenport House.

The Davenport House plays a significant role in Savannah’s history as the first effort of the local historic preservation movement. Unlike the other historic homes discussed recently on this blog, the Davenport House has been a museum in one iteration or another for over sixty years, and the shifting focus of its collection, decoration, and interpretation is becoming just as much a part of its history as its historic aura.

Isaiah Davenport (1784-1827) was a Rhode Island-born carpenter who moved to Savannah sometime in 1808. Although primarily remembered today as a house carpenter, he was also a city alderman from 1817 until 1822 and an occasional firemaster and constable for the Greene and Columbia city wards. As befit the successful circumstances of many of his clients, Davenport’s buildings incorporated phenomenal architectural detail and millwork, features which he prominently displayed in the house he built for his own family.

The structure that survives today was built in 1820, a particularly busy time for Davenport, as he was helping to rebuild the city after a major fire. An elegant, if not slightly retard a terre, five-bay Federal-style structure, the dwelling served as a tour de force of Davenport’s aesthetic sense and technical skill. The curved double staircase and the extraordinary wood archway in the front hall, supported by ionic columns, are of particular note. Thankfully for the historically minded, these prominent features also saved the house from destruction.

Isaiah Davenport died in 1827 during a yellow fever epidemic, leaving the house to his wife Sarah, who took in boarders to help make ends meet. In 1840, she sold the home to the Baynard family, who owned the property until 1949. By the turn of the 20th century, the fashionable quarters of the city had shifted away from State Street, and the house increasingly suffered from neglect. And yet by 1934, when the house could be charitably described as “seedy,” its fine features were apparent enough to attract the attention of the Historic American Buildings Survey, which documented the structure. By 1955, the house was in dire straits, and, as so many historic structures were in post-war America, threatened with demolition. A group of concerned citizens banded together to purchase the dwelling, and, in doing so, formed the nucleus of the Historic Savannah Foundation, a community force that has saved hundreds of buildings in the city, and preserved the historic character so valued by locals and tourists today.

For the past six decades, the role and interpretation of the Davenport house has evolved, along with the fields of historic preservation and museum management. Originally the headquarters of Historic Savannah, the first floor opened as a museum in 1963, with the second and third floors added in subsequent decades as the Foundation moved its offices elsewhere.

Beginning in the 1990s, efforts to keep the house up to date with the latest museum standards and interpretation practices resulted in a new furnishing plan, research into the Davenports’ lives and possessions, and partnerships with craftsmen and scholars across the country to help bring the house back to the height of its 1820 glory. The efforts paid off. In 2003, the Historic Savannah Foundation won the Preserve America Presidential Award for the work on the restoration of the Davenport House and garden. In preserving the home, the Foundation has not just saved the visual record of the city’s history, they have saved the stories and tradition surrounding one of the key players in Savannah’s 19th-century development. We can hardly wait to explore the house next spring!

Winston-Salem and the North Carolina Piedmont

Winston-Salem and the surrounding Piedmont hold many attractions for lovers of the decorative arts: stellar collections at regional museums, the annual High Point Furniture Market, and a wealth of history dating back to before the American Revolution. For many Trust members, this symposium was a chance to revisit favorite institutions, such as the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts or the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. For others, it was their introduction both these museums and to the region. For Matt and Christian, it felt a bit like coming home, thanks to the many dear friends who work in the area. The beautiful spring foliage, wonderful barbecue, and generous helpings of the area’s fabled Southern hospitality added up to a wonderful experience.

The symposium kicked off with an opening reception in MESDA’s museum center. In addition to catching up with old friends and making new ones, members had a chance to walk through the museum’s newest galleries, both, named for MESDA benefactors who are also Trust members: the Carolyn and Mike McNamara Southern Masterworks Gallery, and the William C. and Susan S. Mariner Southern Ceramics Gallery. These self-guided galleries are one new aspect of MESDA’s evolving interpretation and education strategy, which was one of many accomplishments outlined by Old Salem Vice President of Collections and Research, and Trust Governor, Robert Leath during his opening lecture, 50 Years of MESDA. A further surprise awaited participants after the lecture: as a special thank you gift, Matt had commissioned a run of commemorative mugs from Brenda Hornsby Heindl, head of the ceramics department at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, and who also runs Liberty Stoneware (link), a pottery studio specializing in historically-inspired designs.

Friday brought the focus of the Trust to the 20th century, an era of incredible industrial growth and prosperity in Winston-Salem. Our base of operations was the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, a stellar institution operating out of the former home of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds and his wife Katherine. As pointed out by architectural historian Peggy Smith in the day’s opening lecture, Reynolda was the first of many grand country and suburban houses built in the Winston-Salem area for wealthy residents. The Reynolds were the first to employ Philadelphia-based architect Charles Barton Keene, who became the fashionable choice for those building new homes in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. R.J. and Katherine’s granddaughter, Barbara Babcock Millhouse, who grew up in the house, spoke of the recent restoration of the interiors to their 1917 appearance, a lengthy process of discovery, as the early decades of twentieth century design and interior decoration have not received much scholarly attention. As with many museums, the growth and development of the collection is a history in its own right, and curator Allison Slaby’s lecture on envisioning the house as a premier museum of American Art spoke as much about the developing appreciation for that field as it did the history of the collection.

A particular treat of Trust symposia is the ability to visit the sites described in the lectures, and Friday’s afternoon visits did not disappoint. A quartet of houses from the first half of the twentieth century, including Reynolda, graciously welcomed members over the course of the afternoon. Graylyn, built by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company president Bowman Gray, Sr., is now a conference center operated by the nearby Wake Forest University. The Trust was hosted for lunch in the Atlantis Room—the center’s (covered) indoor pool, featuring bright ceramic tiles and a decorated with exuberant undersea murals. Lyons Gray, grandson of Bowman Gray, and his wife Connie gave remarks during lunch on the history of the house and their family. Like many large houses, the four seen by the Trust have changed with the times, and been adapted for different uses. Of the four, the Ralph and Dewitt Hanes house still serves as a home, albeit an official one. Since the 1980s, it served as the President’s House for Wake Forest University. The garden, by designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman, was in full bloom and a great favorite with the participants. Across a small lake is the house built by Ralph’s brother James, and which today serves as the entryway for the galleries of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.

Saturday once again brought us back to the bosom of MESDA and Old Salem. The morning’s lectures hit the major highlights of the institution, from an introduction to the Moravian aesthetic by Johanna Brown, to overviews of Piedmont furniture, southern metalwork, and southern ceramics by June Lucas, Gary Albert, and Rob Hunter, respectively. That afternoon, MESDA staff truly rolled out the red carpet for the Trust with a series of in-depth, behind the scenes tours. Organizing a group of more than 100 into three separate sessions of small groups did cause Christian some minor heartburn, but he decided it was worth it after tagging along on the tours. The small group size, the expertise of the leaders, and the “behind the scenes” information made these definitely more special than the average gallery walk.

All good things must come to an end, but what better way to end a Trust symposium than a fantastic showing by emerging scholars? Sunday’s lectures were dedicated to MESDA’s Summer Institute, spearheaded for thirty years by Sally Gant. In addition to the fieldwork undertaken for the MESDA research center, the Summer Institute has served as an important training ground for generations of curators and museum professionals. We had the opportunity to hear from three summer institute alumnae: Amber Clawson of Historical Association of Catawba County, Brenda Hornsby Hiendl, and April Strader-Bullin, now working at MESDA. In addition to uncovering new information about the material life and history in the American South, each of these projects helped set them on their professional trajectory. Daniel Ackermann, MESDA’s associate curator, closed the festivities with a preview of what the institution hopes to do with its next fifty years.

To say a good time was had by all would be a massive understatement. It was a pleasure for Matt and Christian to bring so many people to such an array of wonderful institutions in the heart of North Carolina. We hope to see just as many enthusiastic participants at our future symposia in Winchester, Savannah, and Hartford,  as well as study trips to Yorkshire, Scotland, and Venice!

A Preview of Reynolda House

Reynolds House, Image courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Reynolds House, Image courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Although the primary base of operations for the Trust’s Spring Symposium in Winston-Salem will be the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, our Friday schedule will highlight the city’s twentieth-century heritage. The Friday lectures and an afternoon tour will be hosted at the mother of the local country estate movement, Reynolda House. This will not be the Trust’s first involvement with the property. Rebecca Migdal, a 2012 recipient of a Trust Summer Research Grant, fell in love with the house during a field trip while a fellow in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. Her research, a summary of which can be read below, happened at a fortuitous time in Reynolda’s evolution as a museum.

Katherine Reynolds, image courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art.
Katherine Reynolds, image courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

The Reynolda House Museum of American Art sits at the core of an expansive project spearheaded in the 1910s by Katherine Reynolds, the wife of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds. Not one to do things by halves, Katherine oversaw not just the design and construction of the 26,000 square foot “bungalow” but also the acquisition of a 1,067-acre estate that housed a bustling farm village and a working dairy farm with two herds of Jersey cattle—one for milk and one for show.

Although a resident of Winston-Salem for the entirety of her adult life, Katherine Reynolds turned to Philadelphia-based designers to bring her vision into reality: architect Charles Barton Keene and landscape architect Thomas W. Sears.  E. A. Belmont of Wanamaker’s New York executed many of the interior spaces, including two contiguous offices or “dens,” one for Katherine and one for R.J. All three relied on significant guidance from Katherine herself.

Particularly in light of contemporary standards, Katherine was an accomplished businesswoman. She previously worked as a secretary and did more than just dabble in local charitable causes. After R.J.’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 1918, Katherine represented her and her children’s interest in his business empire, even going as far to use R.J.’s own office in Reynolda House to meet with his business partners and keep track of their financial interests. After her remarriage to J. Edward Johnston in 1921, she maintained her interest in the Reynolds’ affairs. Following her death from childbirth complications in 1924, the house was held in trust for her children.

During the late 20s and early 30s, much of the original estate was sold off in parcels, many to local families, who built their own country houses, including the Hanes brothers and the Bowman Gray family dwellings that form the rest of the Trust’s Friday itinerary of site visits. A total of 605 acres were also donated to Wake Forest University, whose new campus just to the north of Reynolda House was dedicated in 1951.

Beginning in 1934, Katherine’s daughter, Mary Babcock, raised her own family at Reynolda. In 1967 Mary’s daughter Barbara Babcock Millhouse, along with her father Charles Babcock, turned the house into the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. The original seed collection of nine paintings has turned into a collection of over 300 of the finest examples of American art, many of which have been key parts of national and international exhibits.

In 2002, the Reynolda House Museum of American Art became formally affiliated with Wake Forest University, an institutional partnership that has produced fantastic opportunities for both parties. The collaboration also permitted a 2005 renovation and restoration of the property that added a modern gallery wing behind the historic house, and the return of many of the interior spaces to their 1917 appearance. This restoration initiated a long process of thoroughly reviewing the museum’s collection of family and estate objects, many of which appeared in inventories of the house from the 1920s, but, in a fate familiar to many decorative arts scholars, were subsequently separated from their original context.

Rebecca Migdal’s work focused on R.J. and Katherine’s office suite. Furnished by Wanamaker’s, the spaces initially seemed to rigidly adhere to gendered expectations, with Katherine’s brighter and smaller office showcasing light, French-inspired furniture, a style often found in a woman’s boudoir, and R.J.’s study featuring dark woodwork and heavy furniture often proscribed by decorators of the day for a man’s “den.” The more Rebecca delved into the work that actually went on in each of these spaces, the more interesting their function became. Rather than being private retreats, suitable for quiet, personal work, both rooms became the center for managing the Reynolda estate, both for Katherine and her two secretaries, particularly following R.J.’s death. As such, these spaces more closely resembled the modern home office, with telephone extensions and a typewriter serving as the precedents for a computer and fax machine. R.J.’s massive desk referenced antique detailing, including linenfold panels, and its discreetly hidden typewriter compartment proved it to be one of the most modern pieces of furniture available at that time.

The story of Reynolda house as a family home and center of life on a bustling farm is only one aspect of its nearly century-long history. Our Friday lectures, including one by Barbara Babcock Millhouse, Katherine Reynold’s granddaughter and the museum’s founding president, will celebrate this institution’s history and evolving use. We can hardly wait to explore this museum gem that celebrates American art as well as the the 20th-century country house movement.

2015 in Review

No matter how you look at it, 2015 was the Trust’s busiest and most exciting year. Matt, assisted by Christian for the latter half of the year, introduced new programs, expanded others, and thoroughly enjoyed bringing the Trust’s membership to five fantastic destinations in the United States and Europe. Some of our favorite memories are recapped here.

Although equally popular, this year’s domestic symposia could not have been in more different locations. True to its cosmopolitan reputation, Chicago’s cultural institutions and private collections offered a variety sites ranging from 18th– and 19th-century decorative arts to Arts and Crafts interiors to modernist skyscrapers for our Spring Symposium. Participants, particularly those who had travelled to Ireland with Trust in 2014, enjoyed a wonderful overview of Irish objects in Christopher Monkhouse’s exhibit Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design as well as his keynote lecture focusing on the women artists and artisans of Ireland.

The Fall Symposium in Maine took the Trust to a completely different environment, with nary a skyscraper in sight. Even in the small towns and communities scattered along the coast, however, museums and private collections boasted wonderful examples of the decorative arts that gave those found in major cities a run for their money. One particularly memorable visit was a special evening tour and reception at Victoria Mansion in Portland. This was a magical moment in a time-capsule of a structure, with many of Gustav Herter’s original furniture commissions and decorative schemes still in place.

The major seasonal symposia were complemented by the special one-day event at the Wilton House Museum in Richmond, Virginia, focusing on research and interpretation at historic house museums in the Old Dominion. In addition to fantastic research presented by young and emerging scholars in the field, the event introduced the Trust to an ever-widening audience. More than a dozen graduate students in fields related to the decorative arts attended, and the program brought the Trust to the attention of fifty new members. Wilton House offers a stellar example to similar small museums seeking to evolve, having reinvigorated its interpretation, collections, and programming to attract new audiences and encourage repeat visits.

Both of 2015’s Study Trips Abroad were so popular that they required back-to-back tours to accommodate the demand. For citizens of a relatively young country, these outings provide a chance to see objects that predate the United States by centuries, and sometimes millennia, as well as examples of our host nation’s greatest cultural accomplishments. Many of the sites on the spring tour to Germany, particularly in Dresden, were destroyed during the second World War, and then spent several decades behind the iron curtain and largely inaccessible to the casual tourist from America until quite recently. Seeing these sites, many of which have been newly rebuilt or restored, proved to be special experience for many Trust participants.


In its turn Sicily introduced some of the oldest sites recently visited by the Trust. From the breathtaking Valley of the Temples in Agrigento to the fantastic mosaics at the Villa Romana in Casale, these remarkable structures are a visual reminder of the long history of cultural exchange and political control in Sicily and their effect on the island’s art and architecture. After dealing with these ancient sites, even the 13th-century mosaics at the Cappella Palatina seemed merely middle aged.

As wonderful as these trips were, the Trust owes its members a debt of gratitude for making them truly successful. The opportunity to see many like-minded friends while welcoming new ones make each event cause for celebration. For Christian, in particular, the opportunity to meet and interact with the Trust’s members over the past year was a wonderful experience, especially given that our friends are as enthusiastic about museums, exhibits, and the decorative arts as he is.

Sadly, the year included saying goodbye to a beloved member of the Trust. In addition to being a giant in the decorative arts field, Dean Failey was a kind and funny colleague and friend, who was as generous with his knowledge as he was with his time. Our fall symposium was not quite the same without his jovial and insightful company. His legacy will carry on, however, thanks to the generosity of Trust members, through the Dean F. Failey Research & Education Fund, which will help support these endeavors for many years to come.

2016 is now just days away, and we’re looking forward to an exciting, and doubtless no less busy, year ahead!

The Decorative Arts Trust in Sicily

Although now politically linked to Italy, it’s closest geographical neighbor, Sicily has a long and diverse history as a melting pot of Mediterranean cultures. Much of the art and architecture reflect these influences from eastern and western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, and oftentimes a single structure serves as a visual record of millennia of Sicily’s history. It would be impossible to do adequate justice to the island in eight full days, but two groups of Trust members explored highlights of the provinces of Syracuse and Palermo, along with a long jaunt over the center of the island, stopping in Agrigento on the southern coast to take in some of the most spectacular classical ruins in Europe. Throughout the tour, we were treated to the hospitality, cuisine, and wine for which the island is justly admired.

The first three days of the trips focused on sites around Syracuse. As one of the foremost cities of the ancient world that maintained political control of the Magna Graecia regions of southern Europe, Syracuse features many vestiges of its successive building campaigns. Of particular note on the first day’s walking tour were the remains of the Temple of Apollo on the island of Ortigia (the oldest Doric temple in Sicily), and the Duomo, or Cathedral, which incorporates elements of the 6th-century BC Temple of Athena into its structure. The Greek and Roman amphitheaters just outside of the city were some of the largest ever built in the ancient world, and still see use today.

During this first portion of the tour, the groups were welcomed into two fantastic private residences, the Case del Biviere near Lentini, with it’s noted gardens, and the Palazzo Biscari, in Catania, where they were met by Kathleen Bennett, a Trust member who is researching the Palazzo’s baroque interiors, including the stunning Bird Gallery.

The last day in the province of Syracuse took the Trust further afield, exploring the baroque grandeur of Ragusa Ibla in the morning. Settlements in this location date back four millennia, but like many metropolitan centers in Sicily, much of the original fabric was decimated by earthquakes over the years. The turn of the 18th century in particular was a period of intense geological activity in Sicily, and many cities, including Ragusa, endured widespread destruction during a particularly powerful earthquake in 1693. Ragusa was rebuilt, and most of the glorious baroque structures erected in that campaign, including the church of San Giorgio, provide a charming vista. Of course, not all of the pleasures of Sicily are composed of stone or wood. The afternoon included a tour of the Bonajuto Chocolate Laboratory in Modica, the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily, whose recipes closely replicate those brought over by the Spaniards during their conquest of Sicily, who in turn had learned it from the Aztecs.

The next day, the group left Syracuse for Agrigento, stopping to explore the museums in Aidone and the Villa Romana. Built on the site of an older structure in the 4th century A.D., the Villa Romana contains the largest and most sophisticated group of intact Roman mosaics in the world, depicting leisure pursuits such as athletics, hunting, and collecting exotic animals. That evening, the group arrived in Agrigento on Sicily’s southern coast. The spectacular Hotel Villa Athena overlooked the town’s foremost landmark, the Valley of the Temples. Dinner at the hotel took place outside, providing a matchless view of the illuminated Temple of Concordia.

The stay in Agrigento proved to be one of the highlights of the trip, with a morning tour of the Valley of the Temples. The name is something of a misnomer, as all the structures are actually located on a rocky ridge below the city. Many of the temples date from the 5th century B.C., although other structures such as the Tomb of Theron may be a couple of centuries younger. The Doric Temple of Concordia, which remains in a remarkable state of preservation, is widely considered to be one of the foremost examples of ancient Greek architecture, and serves as the (loose) inspiration for UNESCO’s logo.

After a delicious lunch at Case Vecchie with chef Fabrizia Lanza, the Trust travellers arrived in Palermo, in time for a private evening tour of the Cappella Palatina in the city’s Palazzo Reale. The glowing golden mosaics, recently restored, date from the twelfth century A.D., bear strong influences of Byzantine architecture and art and were likely wrought by craftsmen from Constantinople. Indeed, many of the mosaics depict early church fathers hailed by both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, although the political machinations of the chapel’s patron, the Norman King Roger II, frequently put him at odds with both Rome and the Byzantine Empire.

The following day started out with a walking tour of some of Palermo’s renowned churches, including the Orthodox church La Martorana, whose interior encompasses a variety of decorative styles from its fantastic Byzantine golden mosaics to neoclassical frescoes, and baroque splendor of the Church of Santa Caterina.

The next day saw the Trust going further afield, beginning with the Villa Malfitano, the home of Sicilian wine mogul and renowned ornithologist Joseph Whitaker, continuing to visit American expat and Sicilian cuisine guru Mary Simeti, before ending with a private evening visit to the magnificent Monreale Duomo. One of the foremost extant examples of Norman architecture, the cathedral was built by Roger II’s grandson, William II. Its exterior is richly carved and inlaid in the delicate Medieval style, while the interior houses the longest cycle of Byzantine mosaics found in Italy.

The final day of the tour brought the group to Palermo’s Duomo, with visits to the royal tombs and the treasury, which displays one of the great treasures of Byzantine costume, the Crown of Constance, one of the items this Queen of Sicily and Holy Roman Empress was wearing when she was interred in Palermo Cathedral in 1222. This was followed by the Oratory of Santa Cita, entirely decorated with the exuberant stucco work of Giacomo Serpotta, a true genius for this form of sculptural ornamentation.

2015 has proven to be a banner year for the Trust, and these back-to-back expeditions to Sicily cap off a year of sold-out international tours, including the spring trip to Germany, popular symposia in Chicago and Maine, new programming, and a reinvigorated website and online presence. It has been a pleasure accompanying Trust members on these excursions, and we hope participants will continue to share favorite memories and sites in the comments below. We look forward to an equally busy and exciting year in 2016!