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The Decorative Arts and Architecture of Southern Maine

Most people go to Maine in the fall for its landscape, the leaves, and the tail end of lobster season. For participants in the Decorative Arts Trust’s fall symposium, southern Maine offered an array of museums, collections, and cultural institutions, which in Portland alone could rival a much larger metropolis. We reveled in the beautiful early fall weather and enjoyed the scenery, and many of us honed our culinary connoisseurship skills by trying as many different kinds of lobster rolls as possible (the membership coordinator is not revealing how many he ate over the course of the trip). It was the sites and speakers, however, that proved the most memorable.

For a trip focused on the history and decorative arts of Maine, there was no more appropriate home base for the activities than the Maine Historical Society in Portland. Encompassing a museum, research library, the 1785 Wadsworth-Longfellow House, and a lushly planted garden, the institution houses a collection of objects spanning from the 16th-century to the present day, including treasures such as an original 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence,  early-19th-century guild banners, and objects and ephemera related to all aspects of Maine life.

After an opening reception in the garden, Earle Shettleworth, Maine’s State Historian, formally kicked off the symposium with a lecture on a picture-postcard history of Portland. As a city suffered from numerous fires, these images document the growth of the city and frequently serve as a record for buildings that are no longer extant.

A trip only in pictures, however, would be incomplete, and our introduction to the city was followed by several site visits on Friday. During our morning lectures, three Maine curators discussed projects they’ve undertaken at local institutions, all of which we saw during the afternoon and evening tours.

The collections and exhibition programming at the Portland Museum of Art would do justice to a much larger institution in a bigger city. Diana Greenwold’s introduction to the building’s development and its collection of decorative arts related its varied history. Although traditionally focused on the fine arts, the PMA has dedicated gallery space for a growing decorative arts collection as well as the McLellan House, an 1801 Federal House that served as the museum’s first gallery space after being donated by Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat in memory of her husband—the grandly named Lorenzo de Medici Sweat. Much of the museum’s early collection of decorative arts stems from the Sweat’s personal holdings, which stayed with the house for several years until it was reinstalled in the 1950s in a more “colonial” manner then considered befitting for its architecture. Displays of objects from a variety of time periods are slowly making their way back into the house, and one of the goals of the museum going forward is to better integrate the decorative arts throughout the museum.

Although much smaller, the Longfellow House is a veritable time capsule associated with its most famous resident, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The contents came with the house when it was turned into a museum in 1901 and have largely remained in situ, despite some occasional restoration, particularly to the textiles and wallpapers as new evidence comes to light. Laura Sprague’s introduction to the architecture and decorative arts of Federal Portland offered an excellent primer on this research.

Our final event of the day was a tour and reception of the stunning Morse-Libby house, better known as Victoria Mansion. Curator Arlene Palmer Schwind, noted that the interiors are the earliest known intact commission of Gustav Herter, and about ninety percent of the original fixtures and fittings came with the house when it was turned into a museum. Although many of the interiors have suffered the ravages of time, under Mrs. Schwind’s able leadership several iconic spaces, including the Turkish Smoking Room, have been restored to their original glory, with a special focus on the lavish textiles.

Any trip to Maine would be incomplete without a drive along the gorgeous coastline through some of its picturesque small towns. Bath and Brunswick fit the bill for Saturday’s excursions. Like these locations, the morning’s three presenters verged farther afield, with maritime historian Lincoln Paine speaking about the collections of the Maine Maritime Museum, historical archaeologist Leon Cranmer discussing findings from three privies excavated in different locations in Maine, and Trust Governor Lucinda Brockway introducing gardens and landscapes from around the state.

Tours of three Brunswick institutions occupied the afternoon. Staff at the Bowdoin College Art Museum provided wonderful tours of the building, highlighting the decorative arts galleries, an exhibit of Gilbert Stuart portraits and possessions (including his palette), and “Night Vision”, an exhibition of American paintings focusing on the theme of nocturnal scenes.

Both the Skolfield-Whittier House and the Joshua Chamberlain House are run by the Pejepscot Historical Society.  Much like Victoria Mansion, the Skolfield-Whittier House is a time capsule. Built for the Skolfield family, it served as the primary residence for succeeding generations of family members until the mid-1920s, and only as an occasional weekend home until the mid-1980s. Thus, the original interiors survive as do all the souvenirs and incidental accumulations of daily life, from boxes and packages to odds and ends in drawers.

Unlike Skolfield-Whittier, the Joshua Chamberlain house was stripped and reconfigured during the twentieth century, at one time serving as apartments for students attending Bowdoin College across the street. Saved from demolition by the Pejepscot Historical Society, the house has been slowly brought back to its original idiosyncratic configuration, with curved walls and iron support pillars added when the original house (a modest Cape-style structure) was raised one story by the Chamberlains to accommodate a new first floor underneath. The collection focuses on the life of Joshua Chamberlain, a Civil War hero, Bowdoin professor, and governor of Maine, who is still highly regarded in the state.

The final events of this symposium brought us back to the Maine Historical Society bright and early on Sunday morning. After a brief business meeting led by Matt Thurlow to discuss the state of the Trust and its future plans, we heard from decorative arts superstar Jane Nylander, who, in retirement from career at numerous New England museums, continues to tackle noteworthy research culled from collections throughout the region. She provided a fantastic introduction to the colorful and culturally significant history of parades. Josh Probert, who recently achieved his PhD from the University of Delaware, is making a splash with his research into ecclesiastical works by Tiffany Studios and Tiffany & Company. Josh’s presentation served as the inaugural Marie Zimmermann Emerging Scholar Lecture, and we could not have asked for a more lively or informative effort.

It was a pleasure to bring over 100 Trust members to Maine for an enjoyable, educational, and exciting trip. We look forward to welcoming participants to future symposia in Winston-Salem and the Valley of Virginia next year, as well as on study trips to Poland and Yorkshire!

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