Wallpaper in the Gilded Age Part III. Social Context

1. Fanny Kemble: actress, author, abolitionist.

We start with two questions: Why did people of great wealth build large houses in Berkshire County in the late nineteenth century? And why were they entrusting their architects with interior decoration? 

The short answer to the second question is that the builders of Ventfort Hall, Rotch and Tilden, were highly educated for just this purpose. George Tilden went to the Lowell Institute, the forerunner to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as well as the Beaux Arts school in Paris. Arthur Rotch took four years of humanities at Harvard, two years at MIT, and more education at the school of Beaux Arts, which offered programs in drafting, drawing, and designing based on the study of classical models. 

At that school, the architect was considered a creative artist—a designer, not just an engineer, as in England. Certainly the so-called Lenox colony was a true colony—a transplanted entity—and the cultivators of the colony were the architects, many of whom were as high-born as their patrons. Not everyone is convinced that the arrival of the artiste into the architectural profession was an improvement. Could the innovations at the Beaux Arts school have laid the groundwork for the modern-day starchitect?—a grave charge, if true. 

At any rate, since architecture was being taught as a fine art, it's no wonder that wallpaper captured the students’ attention. Newly-minted architects such as McKim, Richardson, Rotch, and Tilden didn't often design wallpaper themselves. But, they were trained to Appreciate its effects and employ them.

As to why Berkshire County became a playground for the rich, the story starts much earlier than 1893 and the coming of the industrialist house-builders. For 1893 was, in another sense, the end of an era. An apt symbol of this transition was the passing of the internationally known Fanny Kemble: actress, author, and socialite.

2. Obituary of Fanny Kemble.

Like Vanessa Redgrave, Fanny Kemble was born in England, came from a renowned theatrical family, was an activist for many causes, and succeeded on her own terms. Supposedly, the literary Sedgwick family of Stockbridge helped bring Fanny Kemble to Lenox and build the “Perch,” her village home. Kemble began visiting students at the “Hive” in the 1830s.

3. The Hive c. 1860.

The Hive, which Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter attended, was the school associated with the Sedgwick homestead. Lenox Academy and Stockbridge Academy were nearby. Among the graduates of these private schools were Anson Jones (Governor of Texas), Mark Hopkins (educator), and Matthew Laflin (Chicago area philanthropist). But these are just the tip of the iceberg. A web of small private schools, many run by impecunious but learned men and women, were sprinkled throughout New England. They were important out of all proportion to their size, and maintained this role even after public education took hold around 1850.  

Fanny Kemble's first career lasted only from 1829 to 1834, when she retired from the London stage to marry Pierce Butler, an American. By 1845, the marriage was over. She returned to the stage and began performing Shakespearean recitals a few months after Charlotte Cushman's English tour as Hamlet ended in February of 1847. Fanny’s first dates were at a hall in Highgate, but by January of the following year she was reading Hamlet in Boston. She continued the readings in Lenox, among many other places, and used the profits to contest her divorce to Butler as well as support women’s organizations and the abolitionists. Longfellow versified about her Boston performances. She sat, he reminisced, at “a reading-desk covered with red, on a platform, like the gory block on the scaffold; upon which the magnificent Fanny bowed her head in tears and great emotion....What nights these are! With Shakespeare and such a reader.”[1]

The list of literary and artistic names associated with the Berkshires in the mid-nineteenth century is long, and includes artists Thomas Cole and Frederic Church who came to the Berkshires on painting expeditions from 1844 to 1846. Both built homes on the nearby Hudson River.[2] There were many watering-holes for the rich, but the Berkshires had literary cache that Saratoga, Bar Harbor, and Newport could not match. For example, it was apparently also Sedgwickian literary connections which secured future poet William Cullen Bryant his first job editing newspapers in New York City.[3]  Bryant was born in the Berkshire village of Cummington in 1794, and wrote “Thanatopsis,” his most famous work, while still in his teens. Henry James was in the area as a boy and became a good friend to Edith Wharton and an even better friend to Kemble. 

4. Fanny Kemble's portrait.

Imagine, if you will, attending one of Fanny's Shakespearean recitals in Lenox and noticing in the audience Herman Melville; Nathaniel Hawthorne; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.—perhaps even in the same row. If they did sit together, it's quite possible that during intermission they talked about money. Holmes abandoned Pittsfield seven years after building a home there, citing the high cost of living, and both Melville and Hawthorne had trouble making ends meet in the 1850s.[4] 

Samuel Gray Ward, counted as a minor transcendentalist, was one of the earliest transplants to Lenox, arriving from Boston in the mid-1840s. Richard Upjohn constructed an Italianate villa for him called Highwood near the estate of East India Company merchant William Storey Bullard. The dizzying history of a single hilltop in Lenox further illustrates some of the trends. A doting Brooklyn congregation bought a small farmhouse at Blossom Farm as a summer getaway for Henry Ward Beecher in 1853.[5] 

Beecher, who had spent the previous two summers in Salisbury, Connecticut wrote most of the Star Papers in Lenox but soon left for an estate in Peekskill, New York much closer to his Brooklyn base. Long after his departure Blossom Farm was known as “Beecher's Hill.” A successful stove-maker from Albany, John F. Rathbone, then built a Second Empire home dubbed “Wyndhurst” on the site in the 1860s.[6] A large shingle-style house called Coldbrook was built on a neighboring lot in 1882. Finally, John Sloane, owner of the New York City department store W. & J. Sloane & Company, tore down the Second Empire Wyndhurst and built a new Wyndhurst in 1894, this time with ochre brick in a castellated Tudor manor style. Wyndhurst is know known as the Cranwell Resort.

5. Present-day Cranwell.

A history of Lenox summarizes the picturesque mid-nineteenth century era: “Forty years before the lionization of Lenox in the Gilded Age, these Italianate-and Stick-style villas [Woodcliff, Highwood, the Elms, Tappan house, Mahkeenac Farm] were grand for their day. They were all built between 1845 and 1865, at a time when American city dwellers gained wealth and mobility to build country places....Lenox’s country houses were places where new thoughts from abolition to art, literature to liberty, were exchanged in drawing rooms, on piazzas, over croquet and in rowboats on the Stockbridge Bowl.”[7] 

Although the slower pace, woodsy scenery, and clean mountain air may have sparked some interest from city-dwellers, especially in the warm weather months, it was the intellectual, literary, and social connections that cemented the deal. All went toward creating a picturesque social milieu. The first house-building campaigns were founded on a culture of the imagination established by literary heavyweights, many of whom struggled economically. The succeeding generations of cottagers were financially secure in their chosen fields of commerce, finance, and industry. Thus the seventy-five or so estates built in Lenox and Stockbridge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were following an earlier model, but they served a different elite.[8]

6. Present-day Blantyre.


[1] Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction, 2007, p. 68. Longfellow’s sonnet is “On Mrs. Kemble’s Readings from Shakespeare.” A quote from the sonnet is cited in Howard. 

[2] The Cole family moved from Lancashire, England to Philadelphia in 1819, when Thomas was 18.  His father, James, went on to Steubenville, Ohio to found a paper-hangings factory and Thomas soon joined him.  Thomas engraved blocks for the business and probably designed wallpaper as well. His father moved to Pittsburgh to start a floorcloth business in 1823. 

[3] For more about the Sedgwick family including Edie Sedgwick of Factory fame see In My Blood, John Sedgwick, 2009; for more about the social circle of the earliest Lenox cottagers, see Hawthorne's Lenox: The Tanglewood Circle, Cornelia Gilder and Julia Peters, 2008. 
[4] Miriam Rossiter Small, Oliver Wendell Holmes, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962, p. 66.

[5] Blossom Farm was owned by the Rev. John Hotchkin, the principal at Lenox Academy. 

[6] The farmhouse that had been occupied by Beecher was moved before construction. According to family newsletters, the house of Gen. John Finley Rathbone was built at a cost of $25,000 by architect Richard Wickham.

[7] Hawthorne's Lenox, introduction. 
[8] Many of these large private homes passed to non-profit organizations in the mid-twentieth century; most that remain are upscale resorts, spas, and hotels. 

caption credits:

1. Frances Anne Kemble - adapted from Project Gutenberg eText 16478. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

2. Fanny Kemble's obituary ran in the New York Times of January 17, 1893. A transcription is at: http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/18533

3. "The Hive."  Photograph.  1860.  Digital Commonwealthhttp://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/rj430s879. Courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

4. This image of Fanny Kemble is in the public domain:

6. © Blantyre 2015: www.blantyre.com

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