How To Decorate a Victorian-Era House?
So, this is the plan.
The other day though, Bo Sullivan commented. As faithful readers of this blog will know, Bo is a God to me. He is incredibly knowledgeable about period design and period lighting and period wallpaper and, golly, just all things period. I suspect that if I wanted to have an 1890s suit made for an event, Bo would know exactly how it should be styled and cut. And exactly what fabric I should use.
I feel incredibly privileged that Bo seems happy to communicate with me.
In his comment, Bo urged, strongly, against my stencil selection, and recommended a stencil version of the 1894 damask wallpaper. He even offered to underwrite the cost of the stencil.
Wow. Incredible. My mind raced with tingled excitement about this new possibility!
I replied to Bo that while I still very much wanted to proceed as planned, I was nonetheless excited to see what he might come up with.
We then went back and forth, and then I realized that the whole issue would make for a fascinating stand-alone post. I hope you agree.
I want to thank Bo for taking the time to engage in this discussion, which forced me to articulate my thoughts.
I also want to thank Bo for having an interest in this discussion! A man to love!
And so, I offer the following for your reflection…
A Tale of Two Directions
It seems that there are two directions people take when decorating an old house:
- Recreating a period-correct decor. The more authentic the better.
- Some people though desire a more modern look. This normally means knocking down walls to create an open plan, painting all the wood trim and wood doors and wood mantels white, and punching a lot of can lights into the ceiling. The house will then be furnished with nary an antique.
The first direction is something I have no desire to do.
The second direction, well, FREAKS ME OUT. Sadly, this direction seems the norm. Sigh. And This Old House celebrates this! Go figure!
I wonder though if there is a…third option? I wonder about this a lot. Indeed, a rather obsess over the question.
My plans for the Cross House, and how it looks when done, involve a direction I have not seen before. I have looked and looked for examples of what I want to do but keep only finding examples of direction #1 or #2.
You see, I very much want the historic Cross House, when completed, to seem fresh and modern Even hip! At the same time however I want it obvious, without question, that the house dates to 1894.
These two desires seem irretrievably conflicting.
But are they?
When the Cross House is completed, I yearn for young people to walk in and exclaim: Wow! I love this! I could live here! I want these imaginary young guests to instantly understand that old houses can be cool while nonetheless being 100% respectful of the original historic structure.
My kazillion thoughts on the matter have resolved to:
- Be exacting about restoring the structure.
- Create a decor which is clearly modern, yet still complements the 1894 structure.
Can a 1894 House Visually Acknowledge That the 20th-Century Happened?
In pouring over images of Victorian-era interiors, I am always struck by the diversity of expression. The range of expression seems endless.
I have also observed that such interiors incorporate furnishings and objects representing decades and even centuries of design. And this, perhaps, is one of the most important issues impacting my thoughts.
The Cross House was built in 1894. I have no interior images (insert big sigh) so have no idea what the original decor was like, save the few pitiful fragments of wallpapers. The decor might have been elegant and beautifully styled, and it might have been, well, ugly. No era is immune to bad taste.
It is likely however that the decor of the Cross House incorporated furnishings and objects which in 1894 were already antiques. Perhaps the dining room set was terribly old-fashioned by 1894 but had been passed down in the family for three generations? Perhaps many objects had been collected on world travels in exotic places, objects which might have been centuries old? Perhaps the round reception room was based on ancient Moorish influences? Perhaps the parlor sitting set was Egyptian-influenced?
This type on blending of history was not unusual to Victorian-era decoration. And this brings me to something important.
The Cross House is 122-years-old. It is not frozen in time. To me, it is very much alive, more so than it has been for a long time. I love love love the idea that the house is returning to life and brilliance after a long slumber!
If Susan and Harrison Cross perhaps had no compunction about decorating their new home with an eclectic decor reflecting a diversity of styles and ages, then why should I? Thus, I yearn for the past 122-years to ALSO be reflected in the house when it is finished. I yearn for the house to feel contemporary yet nonetheless unmistakably historic.
Exactly HOW to accomplish this is the struggle.
Certainly I am not going to proceed with Direction #2: knock down walls to create modern open-plan living, paint all the trim white (the horror!), and punch 4,759 can lights in the ceilings.
Another issue which hugely impacts my thoughts is a desire not to fake history.
When the Cross House is finished, I want it readily obvious what is 1894 and what is not. For example, three of the bedrooms have attached bathrooms. These were closets originally, and were converted in 1929. Cheaply. Badly. What would be the ideal solution?
- A part of me would like to tear out the bathrooms and restore the closets. But 99.9% of future buyers will be THRILLED that all the bedrooms have en-suite bathrooms, and thus the future of the house is better protected.
- I could rebuild the bathrooms to match the two original 1894 bathrooms. But this would confuse the historical narrative of the house.
- I could rebuild the bathrooms in a 1929-era style. Except the bathrooms would then be, well, fakes. They would be brand new bathrooms trying to look like 1929 bathrooms, again confusing the historical narrative of the house.
- Maybe the solution would be to build unabashedly modern bathrooms? At least this option would not confuse the historical narrative and thus fracture the time/space continuum, bringing an end to life as we know it. An important consideration!
In 1950, openings were knocked through the original interior brick supporting walls in the basement so that bathrooms could be created during the conversion of the house into a motel, when rentable rooms were built in the basement. These bathrooms (save one) are now gone. In blocking up the door openings, I deliberately used concrete block rather than brick, because this makes it clear that something had happened, rather them erase or muddle the history with brick infill.
On the front porch, I had the original railings recreated, and will be doing the same with the railing spindles. While new, each exactly replicates the rotted originals. The historical narrative will remain visually the same, even if the material is new. I am OK with this.
If I could exactly recreate the original wallpaper to the parlor, I likely would. My only hesitation would be that I have no idea what the lost frieze and ceiling paper looked like. So, even if I could afford to recreate the original wallpaper, I could not recreate the original ensemble. I could certainly come up with an alternate frieze and ceiling paper, but then I would be creating a faked ensemble. Does all this make sense?
In the two-story stair hall, I know exactly what the original ensemble looked like as I have fragments of the 1894 wallpaper, frieze, and ceiling paper. I very much hope to recreate this lost ensemble, and be able to say: This is exactly what was here in 1894. Again, the historical narrative would be visually the same as it was originally, even if the material is new.
All the original lighting in the Cross House is long gone. I have done numerous posts about my dawning awareness that the Cross House was very likely the first house in Emporia to have electric lighting. Physical evidence confirms that the house had gas/electric combination lighting throughout. This is a fascinating and fabulous and important aspect of the house’s history. As such, I now plan to be meticulous in reinstalling period-correct gas/electric lighting to the house. This is not an aesthetic decision but rather a historical decision. Even though I have no idea of exactly what fixtures were in the house originally, I do know they were selected in 1894, and were gas/electric. By re-installing early 1890s gas/electric chandeliers and sconces, I believe the historical narrative will be correct even if the fixtures are new to the house.
I doubt I will be able to afford period-correct fixtures for a great long time in every room of the many-roomed house. In rooms bereft of period-correct fixtures I am planning to install lighting which no one could mistake for 1894, such as a 1960 Sputnik chandelier in my bedroom, and 1970s Hollywood-Regency pendants in the library. While such choices will be partly driven by finances, another motivating factor is my desire for the decor of the Cross House to reflect the fact that time did not stop in 1894. A lot of way cool things have been designed during the last 122-years.
Well, all this is why I am reluctant to proceed with a stencil version of the 1894 wallpaper for the parlor. The stencil will not be what was there in 1894, but will be a sorta kinda somewhat facsimile of the original. And I still would not have the original frieze or ceiling paper. So these, too, would have to be…fudged.
And this makes me uncomfortable. There is so much about the Cross House which is original. I want to respect all which is original, and to recreate what can be accurately recreated. I am loath however to create confusion about what is original and what is not.
This is all a bit tricky however. I could, could, just order a new damask pattern wallpaper for the parlor, and with a matching frieze and ceiling paper. I do not want to do this for the reasons outlined above: I will be confusing what is original and what is not.
However, the same could be said about installing gas/electric lighting. I will not be able to point to the fixtures and say: these are original to the house.
In my mind though is a large distinction. What paper was originally in the parlor is not historically important. What the original lighting was is of significant historical importance. Again, the Cross House was very likely the first house in Emporia to have gas/electric lighting, To ignore this historical distinction is something I just cannot do.
For two years now these issues have been percolating in my head, and sum up as follows:
- Protect what is original.
- Recreate lost original bits IF this can be done visually accurately.
- Everything else should not confuse the historical narrative.
- Embrace the last 122-years of history.
Thus, because I cannot accurately recreate the lost paper ensemble of the parlor, my instinct is to go in the opposite direction and create something unabashedly modern in feeling, as shown in the stencil at the top of this post.
Several times above I mention the idea that the new decor should complement the 1894 structure. As the parlor walls were originally patterned, stenciling new patterns will complement the original look while not fudging with history.
My conclusions are heresy to most old house lovers. I understand this, and fully expect to be stoned by a crazed mob of old house enthusiasts when I am finished with the decor!
Ego? Or Livability?
Bo mentioned the power of ego: many people desire to put their stamp on their house. This is understandable, but I do not think ego is driving my decorative direction. Rather, this direction is being guided by my thoughts outlined above, and, importantly, what I can live with:
When the Cross House was built, it is evident that Susan and Harrison Cross endeavored to create a home which was as modern as could be in 1894. I feel guided by this spirit in attempting to make the resurrection of the house modern, still.
To me, interior design is like writing a great musical score. Just a note or two off and the entire composition is ruined. I am crossing my fingers that my very long experience as a designer will help assure that I hit all the right notes.
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