Time and Again
Against all odds, Maine's "greatest house" celebrates its one hundred and fiftieth birthday this month.
If you go: The Victoria Mansion is located at 109 Danforth Street in Portland. For more information call 207-772-4841 or visit www.victoriamansion.org.
The challenge with old house museums is keeping them fresh. They constantly have to answer the question, "Why should I care?" Finding the relevancy of Turkish smoking rooms in the age of the plasma television is the real test of any successful museum, and especially so with Portland's Victoria Mansion, which celebrates the brownstone's one hundred and fiftieth anniversary this month.
For director Robert Wolterstorff, it starts with being the best. "This is the greatest house of its period in the entire nation," he states unequivocally. "It took maybe six months after I arrived here for me to realize that this place is head and shoulders above any other house of its type. You have lots of preserved Federals and Colonials out there, but nothing from the mid-nineteenth century on a par with the Victoria Mansion."
"To understand our place in the world, you have to understand what came before," adds deputy director Julia Kirby. "That's what this house does. It's the same reason people go to Europe to see Greek temples."
Ruggles Morse, who was born on a farm in Leeds in 1816, began construction on the imposing Danforth Street manse in May 1858. It was the ultimate summer home, a retreat from the heat and disease of New Orleans, where he had made his fortune in the hotel business. Morse demanded the best and got it, at a cost of an estimated seventy thousand dollars. New Haven architect Henry Austin designed the three-story Italianate villa, with its open central hall and jaw-dropping stained-glass skylight. Gustave Herter, founder of the legendary New York design firm of Herter Brothers, did all of the interior design and furniture, including trompe l'oeil ceilings and elaborate gas chandeliers.
Morse died in Portland in 1893, and a year later his wife, Olive, sold the mansion, along with most of its contents, to retailer J.R. Libby. By the 1930s the house was standing vacant and in danger of demolition. A retired educator, William H. Holmes, bought the house in 1940 and opened it as a museum named in honor of Queen Victoria. The Victoria Society of Maine took it over several years later.
Today the mansion is extraordinary not just for the building itself, fronted with an imposing and recently renovated four-story tower, but also for its contents. Everything from the wine glasses on the dining room table (Morse apparently believed Maine's temperance laws of the time applied only to other people) to the Italian marble fireplace in the parlor is original to the house, recovered over the years from throughout New England. "The furnishings are not just the imagination of a curator," explains Kirby. "We have the original items that Ruggles Morse and his wife used when they lived here. We can see how members of the elite lived then compared to the way we live now."
Restoration continues today. An expert from a Boston museum comes up each week to work on the Turkish smoking room on the second floor. "It's decorated in the Islamic style," Wolterstorff explains, tracing the intricate patterns on the wall. "It's the earliest documented smoking room and the earliest surviving Islamic decoration in the United States.
"Saying there are thousands of things to see here is an understatement," Wolterstorff says. "I've been here ten years, and I still find new things almost every day.
"People crave experiences," he continues, "something beyond an iPod. When you walk through the front door here, you are entering a unique experience. That's why people should come here, and that's what keeps people coming back."
- By: Jeff Clark