Sunday, August 15, 2010

Strawberry Banke Museum


Ever heard the term "living history museum"? Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village,and Plimouth Plantation - They're all living history museums (LHM). And so is Strawberry Bank Museum.

A LHM is defined as special type of open air museum. "An open-air museum is a distinct type of museum exhibiting its collections out-of-doors. The first open-air museums were established in Scandinavia towards the end of the nineteenth century, and the concept soon spread throughout Europe and North America. Open-air museums are variously known as skansen, museums of buildings and folk museums. Living museums, also known as living farm museums and living history museums, are a special type of open-air museum where costumed interpreters portray period life in an earlier era. The interpreters act as if they are really living in a different time and place, such as the Colonial era, and perform everyday household tasks, crafts and businesses. The goal is to demonstrate older lifestyles to modern audiences." (Open Air Museums -Wikipedia)

Well back to Strawberry Bank. It's way way smaller than Colonial Williamsburg and smaller than Old Sturbridge Village. But still with 42 houses on 10 acres, there's plenty to see.

In 1950's and 60's The neighborhood formerly known as Puddle Dock was a dilapidated area slated for the urban renewal wrecking ball until a town librarian spearheaded a plan to save the area and turn it into a museum. Our tour guide credited this successful venture as a foundation in the renewal of the city of Portsmouth,NH.

Highlights of the tour for me included the Shapiro House, described in this NY Times Sept 15, 2009 article "Rosh Hashana,Circa 1919

Also the Shapley -Drisco House is a fascinating juxtaposition of the use of this house in 1795 and then in 1955. If you're a baby boomer you'll find the 1955 living room and kitchen full of familiar objects.

And then there's the World War II era corner store. That's always a captivating stop. It's fun to look through all the products and identify those that are still around.

I'm going to take a stand on the controversy of costumed interpreters. I don't remember their performances well enough at most of the living history museums that I've visited but Strawberry Banke is fresh in my mind and for the most part I felt engaged and entertained. In the hands of a less skillful and committed actor they can come across as a member of the Disney staff but the three I encountered in S.B. were adept at drawing you into their world. How do you feel about them?

Inside a garage building were these pictures of World War II posters. What's with the "Save waste fats for explosives. Take them to your meat dealer."? I'd like to learn more about that! And I found the list of ways that you could help the war effort to be fascinating. It's hard to image people rallying around these simple purposeful patriotic actions today. Maybe you can't read the last one well. With my conservation mentality I like the saying: "I'll carry mine too! Trucks and tires must last till victory."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Victoria Mansion


True to my word, I revisited Maine this summer and did explore some of the promising house museums I missed last summer. In fact the Victoria Mansion was for me the real draw back to the area.

Most of the homes I visit are not exceptionally well known. I become aware of them through newspaper articles, on-line research and occasionally in a guide book. The Victoria Mansion was the exception to this. I first saw it as one of two Maine homes listed in the National Geographic Guide to America's Great Houses-More Than 150 Outstanding Mansions Open to the Public. It's also listed by Trip Advisor as the fifth most popular thing to do in Portland. Pretty unusual for a house museum.

It's referred to as the finest example of Italian villa-style architecture from the pre-Civil War era in America. The sumptuous interior was designed by Gustave Herter, one of the countries first interior designers. With more than 90% of its original contents, its the only Herter commission intact today.

The most amazing fact I learned on the tour was that the home built for Ruggles Sylvester Morse and his wife Olive was occupied for only 2 to 3 weeks in the summer. The rest of the year they spent in their New Orleans luxury hotel. Yet even with such a short occupancy history the tour guide was able to convey how the family used this as a home.

Our guide admonished us several times not to lean up against anything. And then made a cryptic comment to be explained later " not everything is what it seems." For instance in the dining room we admired the impressive chestnut woodwork. But it wasn't wood at all but trompe l'oeil on plaster and now in a very delicate state.

Ruggles has an interesting history. He grew up poor on the outskirts of Portland and moved to Boston, New York and later New Orleans making his fortune in the hotel industry. In 1860 the Portland house was nearly complete but because of the Civil War and the Morse's support of Robert E Lee the family was unable to return to Maine until the wars end in 1865.

The exterior of the home is Portland brownstone, a product I'm familiar with as its from the Connecticut community adjoining Middletown. And of course Middletown is home to Wesleyan University, my daughters alma mater.

Like many beautiful mansions of historical significance this home was close to demolition until it was saved by an inspired admirer. In 1940 William Holmes, a retired educator, purchased the home and established it as a museum. Today it is a designated National Historic Landmark.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace

Manhattan, New York

Ever have a curiosity itch that you just have to scratch? You leave a movie and can't go to sleep until you remember the name of that actor and what other movies he's been in or you hear Brian Williams' introduction on the NBC Nightly News and know you've heard that voice before but can't rest until you've researched it and found out it's Michael Douglas.

One of my favorite things about house museums is how you are exposed to an idea, a philosophy, a person, or a historical occurrence and it sparks a question that you just have to have answered - a curiosity itch. One historic home can ignite hours of research on numerous topics.

For me the birthplace and home of Theodore Roosevelt did just that. After my visit I watched a 4 hour PBS series on his life; searched the web for more information on his irrepressible daughter Alice; and researched other house museums within the city of New York.

The Union Square home is easy to find and the tour and exhibits offered a rich background in the man and his philosophy.

And on the big plus side - I bought my first coloring book since childhood. Historic Houses of New York State includes sketches of 43 homes with a short introduction that focus's on the home owner's life and/or architectural points of interest.

From a coloring book's perspective here's what's of note. "This typical four-story brownstone, the birthplace of Theodore Roosevelt, is located on what was a quiet,tree-lined street in New York's most fashionable residential district. After the family moved in 1872, the house was eventually taken over for business purposes and was completely demolished in 1916. After Theodore Roosevelt's death in 1919, the site was purchased and the original house reconstructed as a memorial. This was America's first Victorian reconstruction and is now a National Historic Site."

I should find my crayons and color this in but with my curiosity itch scratched I think I'll just move on.

Joshua L Chamberlain Museum & Skofield-Whittier House


This post is almost exactly a year old. It's been a hell of a year. Both good and bad and so much of it momentous. This is my second start of At Home With House Museums. So here's to a new year with abundant home touring and exploring history.

Taking a family vacation offers an opportunity to see house museums further from home. Our family vacation to coastal Maine offered an unusual number of homes to tour. But as this was our first trip to Maine, our attention was diverted and we sampled from the wide variety of activities and sights that the area offered.

We stayed in Harpswell, a cute little rural coastal community just outside of Brunswick. In Brunswick we were drawn to the partially restored home of Joshua L Chamberlain (1828-1914), a civil war hero, Bowdoin College president and Maine Governor. Sorry to say that the tour just didn't come to life for any of us. Could have been that it just dragged on too long or that there just wasn't enough there to feel it was a "home" to anyone or that little was said about the man or his family to bring them to life. Actually all that rings true.

One set of family pictures hanging on the wall did spark an interesting family discussion. The group of 8x10 photographs from the early 1900's showed a toddler - a girl I was sure. No it was a cute little boy in a dress with hair almost down to his shoulders. A little google research lead to an explanation. In the 1800's children were under the care solely of their mothers and in their early years were not subjected to "strict gender boundaries." Grant, Julia, 1953- A "Real Boy" and not a Sissy: Gender, Childhood, and Masculinity, 1890-1940 Journal of Social History - Volume 37, Number 4, Summer 2004, pp. 829-851.

The Skolfield-Whittier House just across the street and up the green a few blocks was decidedly more fun. The owners of this home verged on a compulsive hoarding disorder. The home is often "described as a time capsule with the complete possessions of three generations." And everything is labeled! The last resident, Dr Alice Whittier, was Maine's first pediatrician.

The home is one half of a brick Italianate duplex built in 1858 by a ship captain for his 2 sons. Today the other half of the duplex is the Pejepscott Museum, a museum of local history.

What didn't we see? Well a lot. We drove up through New Hampshire where in Portsmouth there's an entire historic neighborhood, Strawberry Bank. But with the car loaded with vacation gear and an 8 hour trip we put off the stop for another time.

In Portland, Maine the Victorian Preservation Association website, lists 4 historic house museums. That's too many to see in a day so I narrowed it down to the Victoria Mansion, an Italianate Villa. We were,however, lured to the many boutique shops and wonderful restaurants and didn't see any of the house museums. But based on a wonderful leisurely lunch I can highly recommend the Salt Exchange.

Next trip we'll not only stop in Strawberry Bank, NH and tour several homes in Portland but will also do the self-guided walking and driving tours of the city of Bath.