Monday, July 25, 2011

A Window into the Past

On Thursday July 14, the museum held its fourth annual “Treasures from the Collection” event for members and volunteers.  At the event, items from the collections not normally on display to the public are brought out for viewing, and curator Bill Tyre explains the stories behind them.  This year, items included clothing, signed photographs of musical friends of the Glessners, a brass fireplace fender from the Alexander Hamilton house, a collection of sterling silver serving pieces from a Prairie Avenue family, correspondence, photographs, and original drawings by Isaac Scott.  One textile in particular drew quite a bit of attention.

The woven silk lambrequin shown above displays a piece of fabric with an interesting history.  The cream colored damask fabric, believed to date to the period 1810-1820, features stylized wood-working tools in red including hand planes, saws, scribes, and pliers.  Prominently featured is the name “S*IOSEPH” or St. Joseph, set within a foliated frame.  St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus Christ was a carpenter, thus the connection to the various tools displayed. 

According to tradition, this is a surviving piece of the original draperies installed in the courtyard bedroom.   Although no historic photographs exist to verify this, a couple of other pieces of information support the story.  For one, the red and white colors of the fabric coordinate perfectly with the red and white De Morgan tiles on the fireplace.  For another, a letter recently discovered in the archives from the summer of 1887 (while the house was being finished) makes mention of a fabric selected by Frances Glessner and sent to the architects in Boston for draperies in this particular room.  This would support the fact that the Glessners did not choose Morris & Co. fabric for the draperies in the courtyard room, as they did for all the other bedrooms, but instead sent along a fabric of their own choosing.

How Frances Glessner came into possession of the fabric, which would have been between 60 and 80 years old at the time, is not known, although she did collect vintage textiles.  After the death of the Glessners in the 1930s, their daughter Frances Glessner Lee closed up the house and moved its contents up to the Glessner summer estate, The Rocks, in New Hampshire.  She took the St. Joseph drapes and had them reworked into lambrequins and shorter panels for her home there.  That is the form in which they exist today. 

The textile provides yet another clue as to the sophisticated tastes of the Glessners as they built and furnished their Prairie Avenue home.  Choices were often different from those being made by their neighbors, creating a truly distinctive and unique interior.  We are fortunate that so much documentation survives, so that we can interpret the home with such a high level of accuracy.

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