Home Dealers Calendar Articles Fine Art Database About AFA Login/Register
Home | Articles | Alterations, Repairs, or Colonial Revival?

Fig. 1: Pedestal table, New England, ca. 1840. Cherry. Courtesy of Strawbery Banke Museum. (1980.172)

The Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a Colonial Revival restoration from 1908. The house reflects an era when admiration of the past inspired historically based decorating schemes and the preservation of relics linked to important personages or family members. This mindset was the impetus behind Lillian Aldrich’s (1841–1927) founding of the memorial, which was to honor the legacy of her late husband, writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836–1907). Strawbery Banke Museum assumed the care of the house and its furnishings in 1979, adding to a group of forty other houses that comprise the museum.

Lillian’s vision was to transform the Georgian-era residence of Thomas’s grandfather to the period of her husband’s childhood in the 1850s, which Aldrich recounted in his most popular book, The Story of a Bad Boy, published in 1870. With the help of friends, interior designers, and architects of the early 1900s, Lillian created what in the end can only be classified as Colonial Revival. Very few records remain to shed light on the process that created this early house museum. With the hope of learning as much as possible during a recent restoration, the collections department staff at Strawbery Banke examined the interior finishes and objects during the cleaning and reinstallation process, discovering some interpretive case studies along the way.

Fig. 3: View of Aunt Abigail’s room. Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial, 1908. Courtesy of Strawbery Banke Museum.

While many objects in the house descended through the Aldrich family, others were purchased to furnish the memorial. The collection fills the ten-room house, its attic, and a small, fireproof brick building that Lillian had built to protect personal memorabilia. Objects range from late-eighteenth-century Federal-period case pieces to nineteenth-century Victorian-period hooked rugs and chairs, reflecting the penchant of many New England families to retain the possessions, and thereby the memories, of past generations.

Fig. 2: Dressing table, Massachusetts, ca. 1770–1780. Maple. Courtesy of Strawbery Banke Museum. (1980.768)

Of particular note within the house are some of the unusual alterations and repairs to the furniture, apparently undertaken in an effort to preserve the collection for posterity. The empire pedestal table in Figure 1, for example, was altered from its original appearance as a result of design flaws and subsequent restoration. After the connection holding the pedestal and top to the base weakened, a creative restorer added four outer spindles from two Windsor chairs. By today’s standards, the repair would be unacceptable in a pure nineteenth-century-period room setting. As part of the reinstallation of a Colonial Revival environment, however, it speaks of the era’s desire for preservation and display of the past as well as Yankee frugality.

Similarly, a dressing table (Fig. 2), which was originally the base of a high chest of drawers, was further altered when the legs were cut down and the finish stripped. Castors dated 1877 indicate that Lillian found the family piece in its present condition and, undaunted, used it to furnish one of the rooms. The 1908 view of “Aunt Abigail’s” room (Fig. 3), named for a character in Aldrich’s book, illustrates how Lillian integrated the dressing table to harmonize with its surroundings, retaining significance even in its modified state.

Fig. 4: View of mantel in Aunt Abigail’s room, 2001. Courtesy of Strawbery Banke Museum.

Over the ninety-three years the memorial has been open, two organizations have operated the house as a museum. Some of the early caretakers made changes that in their view reflected the 1850s time period rather than the 1797 date of the structure. The mantel in Aunt Abigail’s room (Fig. 4), added in the early twentieth century, is one such change. Since the mantel is not original to the house but does relay a past interpretation, Strawbery Banke Museum painted it gray to distinguish it from the original surrounding architecture.

It is not often that the furnishings and interior details of early house museums are available for study. Such opportunities shed light on the important efforts of people like Lillian Aldrich, who took on the role of interpreting the past before decorative arts scholarship was readily available. As a museum, Strawbery Banke also seeks to interpret the past. While perhaps doing so using different standards, the chance to learn from our predecessors is a valuable one, enriching our understanding of history and our present decorative environment.

Related Readings:

Aldrich, Thomas Bailey. The Story of a Bad Boy. 1870. (Reprint, Portsmouth, NH: Strawbery Banke Museum, 1990.)
Giffen, Sarah, and Kevin Murphy, ed. Noble and Dignified Stream: The Piscataqua Region in the Colonial Revival, 1860–1930. York, ME: Old York Historical Society, 1992.

Rodney Rowland is the Collections Manager at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, N.H. The museum interprets the 300-year history of one of America’s oldest neighborhoods. For more information, visit www.strawberybanke.org.

Antiques and Fine Art is the leading site for antique collectors, designers, and enthusiasts of art and antiques. Featuring outstanding inventory for sale from top antiques & art dealers, educational articles on fine and decorative arts, and a calendar listing upcoming antiques shows and fairs.