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.
Here’s one of the nation’s newest museums: the J. Paul Getty art museum, designed by architect Richard Meier, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)
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 manors and plantation homes where people can glimpse vestiges of the lifestyles of the rich and famous to humbler, but locally significant and sometimes eccentric, abodes.
Every decent-sized town has one or two.
In the past few days, Carol and I have visited several fascinating historical gems that, only by the grace of trust funds, local benefactors, or cities willing to take them over, have been saved from decline, deterioration, and destruction.
Most recently, we explored the gorgeous McFaddin-Ward House in Beaumont, a onetime oil boomtown in southeast Texas. Think Spindletop Gusher, a 1901 oil geyser of “black gold” so incredible that it set in motion the boom that propelled the nation into industrial dominance.
The magnificent McFaddin-Ward House, a Victorian Beaux-arts masterpiece. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)
These nostalgic treasures are rarely jammed with visitors, and most don’t bring in much revenue, if any at all. 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 and, in the peripatetic Ms. Highsmith’s case, photographing, such places, and I’d like to tell you about some of them.
The George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware
The Read House, spooky by design. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)
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
Abilene’s finest abode. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)
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.
The house displays a number of Seelye’s “snake oil” potions, guaranteed to cure what ails you, no matter what it is. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)
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
Just a part of lovely Roseland Cottage. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)
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.
A parlor at the so-called “cottage,” photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Some cottage! (Library of Congress)
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: the “Unfinished Symphony” of historic restoration. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)
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.
A quiet scene at Longwood, displaying some of the few artifacts remaining when construction was hastily terminated. (Carol M. Highsmith)
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
The ultra-modest Dowse soddy, restored. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)
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.
The preserved and restored Dowse family kitchen. (Photo: Ammodramus, Wikipedia Commons)
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 housesabandoned 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.”
And Then . . .
There are what I would call “mega-mansion” museums that are so stupendous, the proprietors sometimes offer separate tours of specific parts of the house, including the servants’ quarters, guest bedrooms, even the basement power plant.
There are some of these “cottages,” as the titans of industry who originally owned them called these American Downton Abbeys, in places such as Newport, Rhode Island, and the sea islands off Georgia, where the moguls and their families would “winter” with their yachts. A Vanderbilt built — yes, bilt-built — the magnificent, 225-room Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. And probably the most opulent place of all, when one accounts for the furnishings, now worth billions, is Hearst Castle, atop a hill in Central California. It was merely an occasional retreat for publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (and his mistress).
I don’t have the space to regale you with the many wonders of these ginormous American palaces. There are lengthy books and Web sites about them, and if you’ve not toured them, you should. And you can find Carol’s images of Hearst Castle, particularly, on her Library of Congress online archive at (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/highsm/).
I’ll never forget those shoots, but I still appreciate the loving care that administrators and docents put into preserving and showing off wonderful smaller houses such as the McFaddin-Ward House in Beaumont. Smaller in relative terms. McFaddin-Ward is plenty big and beautiful.
Here’s are two last images of Carol’s, taken there the other day. I hope they whet your appetite for a google search, a look at its Web site, or a visit if you’re ever in southeast Texas:
This is just the breakfast room! You should see the formal dining room. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)
A remarkable vase, and a couple of other keepsakes, on a McFaddin-Ward House mantel. And a beautiful photograph, too, if I do say so. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)