My Old House Online

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I saw Paul Stewart's newest discussion, and it emboldened me to raise the following.


So, here's the problem: we own a 1865-ish victorian farmhouse which is great, except for the parlor. It has, like many other houses of the day, a front parlor which we've filled with the requisite victorian or victorian-influenced furniture, pseudo-ancestral portraits, a piano, etc. The problem is that no-one ever uses the bloody room. The furniture isn't really all that comfortable, and the room is, in its current configuration, rather forbidding.

 

We're in the 21st Century, and normally don't have people dropping over for tea and chat. The room doesn't really get used, except by my kids when they practice the piano, or when we have a large party and the guests spill over from the living room into the parlor. So we have this huge room which does nothing except suck up heat in the winter and look pretty. I like a room that looks pretty, but I'd prefer a room which actually had people in it on a regular basis.

 

I recognize that the general line of thought on this forum is the closer to original use and look the better, but that position doesn't help those of us who don't want to live in the past, but who actually have families and desire to live in houses which can be used, instead of encased in some historical amber, preserving the past but not allowing for functional use. I do have to say that this house has been the subject of so much remodeling, re-remodeling, carving up, de-carving, etc., that it would be nigh on impossible to recreate its original layout and trim. What we're working with is a recreation of the original parlor, with what I suspect is a fair amount of modification as to footprint, door location and the like.

 

My spouse and I have discussed putting in some furniture which is slightly more modern and more comfortable to use, and some floor lamps, so that it can be used to relax and read. But we're slightly at sea. I'm sure this problem has faced by others before, and so I ask for your thoughts and experience. All suggestions welcome, regardless of how heretical. How have you used your parlor? What do you have in it?

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Interesting how architecture from the same periods (1900) manifest themselves in other areas of the country. I noticed the capitols of your spiral columns area exactly like ours. Except the columns in our NM house are square. Sorry I do not have any handy pictures to show.

 

Do you think all our interior house details came from a mail order catalog?  Products shipped nationwide by railroad?  My house was built in 1903 and I have seen many of my details here on this column as well as pictured in magazines.  Woodwork, window casings, columns & capitals, etc.  Very interesting.

 

Susan -

 

  I think for most homes from 1903, unless they were specialized homes for the extremely wealthy, ...most of it came through mail order. I guess an exception would be if there was a local mill that spaecialized in housing features.

Our house was built by one of the wealthy families moving in from the east in the late 1890's (see Adin Whitmore). Being from the east, they brought the construction/design ideas with them. I am sure.

Most towns which had a supply of wood and rail service also had someone making furniture - you can find their factories on the Sanborn Maps. It might be ordinary chairs or bed frames, not anything too stylish.

The expansion of magazine and catalog distribution in the late Victorian era ( think printing, paper, transportation) allowed ideas about style to reach the whole country. But Sears-Roebuck and Montgomery-Ward catalogs followed style, they didn't create it - not a good

business model!

There were fat molding and woodwork catalogs published in the hub cities: Albany, Cincinnati, Chicago. Local millwork shops would copy and refine to suit their local clientele -  Mission and Arts and Crafts was not favored in some sections of New England, for example.

Gone With The Wind fan huh? My sister would love that room, right down to the green and gold drapes and the heart shaped jewlery box!

Some thoughts:

My family's house for 50 years was a  Federal Town House, c. 1800, built for a local judge. His office was our family room, a beautifullly proportioned room with extensive paneling, molding, and a fireplace. The Judge's book shelves held our treasures - each child had a special shelf. We had ordinary furniture, much of it family pieces or purchased at auction. Our extended family loved that house and used every bit of it - no rooms with velvet ropes. When we had to sell it, we felt very lucky and relieved to pass it on to a family who also love, respect, and use it. That's how houses stay alive.  So, PLEASE, USE YOUR HOUSE!

 

next: In Victorian times people went visiting - no telephone, internet, tv. Calling cards were used to announce yourself when you came to the door and someone might not be "at home". Ladies especially made 20 minute social calls, usually in the afternoon and drank a little tea. They kept on their hats, and wraps too, but not their gloves. In the late 1890's when town water was piped around, little sink rooms ( lavatories) just off the front hall were popular so you could wash your hands coming in from the dusty, dirty street. ( Horses= manure.) 

The parlor was for those guests. Not your good friends, or people who came for dinner.

It was also for when the minster/priest came to call, as it was always presentable and private. I have also seen that room used as an office for a lawyer or doctor, etc. I have seen it called a library, a music room, and also be used as the special space for a grandmother or maiden aunt. 

Men and women were expected to entertain separately during the day. After dinner together the men went to smoke and drink in one room.  The ladies withdrew  to their own '( with)drawing room'. I always wonder if they smoked and drank too. Maybe just a little?

Yes, sometimes they were just pretty, clean rooms - Read the Little House on the Prairie Books for fine descriptions of that!

We live in an 1863 Federal Style home. We have decorated with just some period furniture.  We feel every room should be used and be comfortable besides being stylish and welcoming. Most of the upholstered pieces are more modern but this makes the beautiful antique tables, secretaries, benches, ect really stand out. We still have the old house nostalgic feeling but with modern comfort. We have always preferred an eclectic style versus the museum look because most homes evolve as you collect things. While it works for us, I fully understand it might not be the right style for someone else.

Hi Richard,

From a perspective of historic preservation, one can make a distinction between the house itself and the furnishings you choose to use in it. Changes that you make to the house itself tend to be of a more 'permanent' nature, while furniture, drapery, and other decorative add-ons tend to be transitory and of little concern to many, if not most, preservationists, except perhaps a very small number who believe that all antique homes should be operated like living-history museums. I very much appreciate and encourage historic preservation, but I do NOT think that your home needs to be a living-history museum.

I'd like to add that we are restoring a ca. 1797 center-chimney cape home. We are trying to carry out the restoration in the most historically accurate manner possible, given our time and budget and considering our own needs. We do plan to furnish most of the rooms in a manner that is historically compatible with the time at which the house was built, but I'm sure that we will end up with a room or two that are furnished strictly for comfort and practicality...and not as living history. We will also have a couple of rooms, like the kitchen and bathrooms, that will certainly have more modern fixtures than were available in 1797 (I prefer not to use an outhouse/privy and I like the idea of refrigerating food), although we will try to keep the cabinetry, counters, and other more permanent features compatible architecturally and workmanship-wise with the period of construction and local nuances.

If your house has valuable/significant historic features, I would encourage you to preserve them, but at the same time, as to furnishings and your lifestyle, I think that you should be comfortable and enjoy your house! That's what a home is all about, eh?

 

 

This has been a very interestingly and thought-provoking forum so far, and I hope it continues. I really appreciate all of the time and thought that all of you have contributed to date, and I thought it only fair to let you know what has happened since I asked my original question.

 

One of the things my wife and I realized was that a parlor just didn't fit in with our lifestyle whatsoever. We rarely have guests over for anything other than a potluck dinner with 15 kids running around underfoot, so the notion of having a separate room set aside for those of our guests who we really wanted to impress seemed pointless. And we also realized that we, at least, don't use our dining room as much as when I was a kid and my parents fed us every night at the big cherry dining room table. Instead, we now mostly eat at the small table in the kitchen. So, it makes perfect sense (to us, at least) to use the very formal-looking parlor as our formal dining room. It has the ceilings, the window, the impressive ceiling medallion, all of which combine to make it look quite impressive. And combining that with the fact that it's actually a lot larger than our first dining room (and thus there was much more room for the table, the extra chairs, the buffet, the china chest, etc) makes it a natural fit for the new use.

 

So we've converted the original dining room (which was in the private part of the house, with lower ceilings, etc.) into a second family room, with a quasi-victorian couch, some slip-covered captain's chairs, a 100 year old farm table and the like. It's much comfy-er than the parlor, and is already being used consistently by our kids as a place to lie down, read their books, and yell at us while we're in the adjacent kitchen. All in all, a win-win, we think.

 

Really, the only flaw with this plan is that the new dining room is an additional 20 feet further from the kitchen. But heck, we can use the exercise when we entertain.

 

And while I'm at it, I'll confess that we have a factor which many people don't seem to have: We have NO BLOODY CLUE what the interior of the house looked like. Although the footprint is the same, it has been used by many different people in many different ways over the last 150 years, and aside from that footprint, the roof and the cellar, I'm pretty sure that almost nothing of the original house remains. No original plaster. The walls have been shifted more than once. The layout of the second floor has been altered so much, and so many times, that it would take a psychic to tell us what the original floor plan was like. In the last 60 years, it's gone from a single family house to a 2-apartment structure, to a 5-apartment structure, to another single family house with a mother-in-law suite built in. And notwithstanding the fact that I've combed through every collection of Victorian-era floor plans I've been able to lay my hands on (and that's a lot, since we've acess to one of the greatest public library systems in the country based in Cleveland, which has orignal pattern books from the 1880s), I've never seen one with matches the idiosyncrasies of this house.

 

But in many ways that's freed us from the potentially overly-oppressive hand of the past. We couldn't possibly restore this house to its original condition, or original look (at least in the interior), because there's no evidence at all which tells us what it actually looked like. The most we could do is approximately reconstruct something that would be based on a complete and utter guess. So that allows us a certain amount of freedom in our design and use choices. I'm not saying that we're gonna install a bunch of sleek 1960s and 1970s italian modern furniture in gleaming stainless steel and bright plastics, but still, we don't feel as hemmed-in as we might otherwise.

 

It's going to be a work in progress for as long as we stay here. I'm hoping that before I die we'll get it to a place where I will not cringe if a photo is published of the interior, but all of your comments have been a joy to read.

I like the way you are looking at the whole picture. We are pretty much in the same boat. The basic features and the whys we bought the house will be maintained or renovated. I am hoping that we will be able to get some pictures from the estate of the previous owners who were only the second owners of this 110 year old house and I think that has been since the 1920's or earlier. Anyway, one of the nieces who inherited the house has told us she would like to visit once we finsih the renovation, as she has many fond memories of the old house.

One main area is the mantle around the fireplace was stolen years ago, and we are to get pictures of it. May not be able to afford a total reporduction, but maybe we can get close. We will keep our fingers crossed.

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