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Home | Articles | The McLellan House: New Approaches to Interpreting a Federal Mansion

by Jessica Nicoll photography by meyersphoto.com

he Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, recently completed the restoration and reinterpretation of the 1801 Hugh McLellan House (Figs. 1-2), one of three architecturally significant structures that form the museum. Rather than re-create an accurate period furnishings plan for the residence in a city already rich in historic house museums, efforts were placed on using the house as an arena to teach visitors about nineteenth-century architecture and design. This goal was achieved through a combination of historically accurate interior spaces, interactive displays, and state of the art technology. The house now fills a major gap in the cultural resources available to Portland residents and visitors, and expands interpretive possibilities and roles for the adaptive reuse of historic structures.

Clockwise from left Fig. 1: Exterior of the McLellan house. Fig. 2: Detail of the front portico. Fig. 3: Southwest bedroom mantel and wall treatment. Fig. 4: Flying staircase.

The survival of the McLellan house is the result of early preservation impulses. Through the efforts of the building's last private owner, Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat (18230-1908), the structure, which is now a National Historic Landmark, was bequeathed to the Portland Society of Art in 1908, forming the cornerstone of buildings that now compose the Portland Museum of Art.

The McLellan house and adjoining Lorenzo de Medici (L.D.M.) Sweat Memorial Galleries, designed in 1911 by John Calvin Stevens, constituted the Portland Museum of Art until the 1983 opening of the Charles Shipman Payson Building designed by Henry N. Cobb of I. M. Pei and Partners. After a recently completed two-year restoration project, the two older structures were revitalized. While the Sweat Memorial Galleries were returned to their original function of displaying artwork, the public use of the McLellan house presented opportunities for interpretation not found elsewhere in the region.

Museum staff challenged themselves to answer the question, "What is the role of a historic house within the mission of a fine arts museum?" After exhaustive research into the building's history and in-depth discussions with a national panel of professional advisors and local focus groups, the answer that emerged prioritized the building's architectural significance as the focus of interpretation. While this decision promoted a museum approach yet absent in the community, it also reflected the fact that the institution's decorative arts collection does not have enough objects for a full furnishings plan, and a museum-quality climate of stable temperature and humidity could not be safely imposed upon the structure. As a result, the interpretive plan spotlights the structure and decorative elements of the house itself (Fig. 3) and what they reveal about the past, both in cultural terms and as an architectural expression of the federal era.

To facilitate an appreciation of the interior and exterior architectural schemes, the McLellan house is interpreted without period room instal- lations. Visitors are instead encouraged to move in and through its majestic spaces, exploring the house both as a historic artifact and work of art, studying its distinctive features, which include a dramatic flying staircase flanked by hanging balconies (Fig. 4), handsome Palladian windows, and unusually intricate and varied interior carving.

An exception to the inclusion of furnishings is the dining room, where master furniture maker Lee Schuette was challenged to design a fully functional dining table and set of chairs that would exemplify contemporary design while representing the traditions of the past. The resulting mahogany table and set of sixteen chairs (made with aluminum accents and silver-colored nylon tennis-string seats) inspired by the late eighteenth-century designs of George Hepplewhite (Fig. 5) provides visitors with a better understanding of the relationship of objects within the interior space, while also functioning for programs, meetings, and special events. To provide opportunities for visitors to learn about period domestic objects such as furniture, glass, silver, and ceramics, as well as paintings and sculpture, displays have been installed in the L.D.M Sweat Memorial Galleries (Fig. 7), which visitors pass through on their way to the McLellan house.

For decades prior to the completion of this project, the interior of the house was shown with bare wooden floors, neutral plaster walls, and monochromatic woodwork, all significant departures from its original appearance. Examination determined that the building's surfaces retained evidence of the original paint colors and decorative finishes. In order to bring the original architectural details and aesthetic sensibilities fully to life, the vivid colors and patterns of the type that originally comprised the interior have been reintroduced (Fig. 6). Evidence from the building was amplified by research into the McLellan family's history, the type and variety of goods available in early-nineteenth-century Portland, and information from comparable households in the region. The resulting decorative plan employs reproductions of early-nineteenth-century wallpapers, carpets, painted surfaces, and a floorcloth in the entry hall, all of which provide visitors with a sense of early nineteenth-century aesthetics.

Clockwise from left Fig. 6: Parlor with false door. Fig. 5: Hallway looking into the dining room. Fig. 7: Palladian Gallery in the L.D.M. Sweat Memorial Galleries.

Visitors to the McLellan house are aided in their investigation of nineteenth-century architecture and design by explanatory texts in each room and special tours led by museum docents. Two multi-media exhibit spaces on the first and second floors expand on these themes while providing visitors with an awareness of how social, economic, and political affairs played a role in the art and patronage of the early nineteenth century. Five computer-based exhibits investigate what it took to build and then preserve the house; what domestic life was like in the nineteenth century; and the role the McLellan house and its inhabitants played in the evolution of Portland's cultural life. Digitized images of historical resources, such as newspapers, letters, and maps, provide in- formation that would not otherwise be readily accessible to museum visitors. Study centers with DVD-interactive programs allow visitors to learn about paint analysis, architectural restoration, and period decorative finishes. Computer stations provide an opportunity to decorate a parlor using available period resources and to learn about Portland through maps and community studies. In addition, a series of family-oriented activities, including puzzles, a dollhouse, paper dolls, and card and board games, provide incentive to younger visitors to think about life in the past.

The interpretive techniques employed are meant to engage and involve visitors of varied ages with a range of information that will make the past accessible and inviting. The educational approach presented through the McLellan house and adjoining L.D.M. Sweat Memorial Galleries combine with the Charles Shipman Payson Building to provide a dynamic experience for visitors to the Portland Museum of Art.

The Portland Museum of Art is located in downtown Portland, Maine, at the corners of High, Congress, and Free Streets. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 9p.m. on Fridays. Monday hours are from 10a.m. to 5p.m. Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Call 207.775.6148 or visit www.portlandmuseumofart.org.

Jessica Nicoll is Chief Curator and William E. and Helen E. Thon Curator of American Art at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

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