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.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jane,

    I accidentally stumbled upon your blog when doing some research on house museums. I think it's great!

    Also, it looks like you're from the New England are so I wanted to suggest some in Boston that are my personal favorites, although they seem to be off the radar in most guide books.

    But if you have a chance you should visit:

    Gibson House Museum, Nichols House Museum and Otis House Museum all in downtown Boston. Hope you have a chance to visit.

    Keep the blog, it's so interesting!