A PLANTATION'S PARLOR SITS WELL WITH A MUSEUM
Antiques By Eve M. Kahn | The New York Times
Rosewood parlor furniture that has scarcely been moved for more than 150 years is about to be shipped across Louisiana.
The New Orleans Museum of Art has bought the parlor contents (for an unspecified price) from the owners of Butler Greenwood Plantation, a 1790s property along the Mississippi River in St. Francisville. It will go on view at the museum in a year or so, after minor repairs.
Descendants of the original owners live at Butler Greenwood, which also has a bed-and-breakfast on the grounds. (Rentable quarters include a dovecote and an original kitchen.) The Magazine Antiques, in a recent article about the parlor rescue, described the family's wealth before the Civil War as "fueled by the enormous production of 11,400 acres and upwards of 500 slaves."
Anne Butler, 70, a descendant who has orchestrated the parlor's transfer to the museum, said in an interview that she remembers wearing vintage gowns to play dress-up as a child in the room. "My grandmother was the last generation that really used it for entertaining," she said.
Ms. Butler's son, Stewart Hamilton,and his family are moving into the house and will update the décor.
"I did not want to be the one who did the wrong thing by the parlor," Ms. Butler said. During public tours over the years, she said, a common visitor question has been, "Why don't you reupholster this?"
Sifting heirlooms has been laborious. "There are trunks and trunks and trunks of old clothes," she said.
She has placed plantation artifacts at various institutions. The Historic New Orleans Collection owns a tan livery jacket said to have been worn by family slaves. Correspondence at Louisiana State University describes slaves fleeing, Confederate troops seizing sugar supplies and soldiers dying of typhoid.
Around 1861, Ms. Butler's widowed forebear Harriet Flower Mathews ordered parlor chairs with rosy tufted upholstery, gilded mirrors, damask window draperies and glass lily curtain tiebacks. Much of the furniture came from Hubbell & Curtis in Bridgeport, Conn., which advertised itself as "constantly manufacturing" and charging prices "cheaper than any other establishment in the vicinity."
The owners, Carlos Curtis and Fenelon Hubbell, also ran an undertaking business that promised "promptness, either day or night." Curtis served as a bank director and Bridgeport mayor. Hubbell, an observant Methodist, was known for blurting out "Amen" after prayers at a volume "greater than anyone else in the church, or any other church in the city," a local newspaper reported in 1961.
As war loomed, Northern companies kept filling orders for Southerners. Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown, said that the manufacturers would reassure Southern clients, "This, too, shall pass, and I hope we can continue to do business," while sending off tools, hats, shoes, whips and rough cotton fabrics called "Negro cloth."
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No one knows why Harriet Mathews chose the Bridgeport supplier.
"They're not anonymous, but nearly anonymous, in the annals of American furniture history," Matthew A. Thurlow, the vice chairman of the Classical Institute of the South, said. The Classical Institute has inventoried the contents of Butler Greenwood and 20 other houses for a database that will become publicly accessible on Oct. 15.
Of the collections surveyed, Mr. Thurlow said, "Butler Greenwood is the only instance in which items have come on the market subsequent to the inventory."
Mel Buchanan, the curator of decorative arts and design at the New Orleans Museum, said she is researching décor decisions in the voluminous Butler Greenwood archives. "I'm not even into the 1850s yet," she said.
By 1865, Harriet Mathews was having trouble paying her bills. Hubbell and Curtis charged 7 percent interest on her debt, apparently feeling little sympathy for a widow trying to make ends meet amid wartime devastation.
"This company in Connecticut is pretending that nothing happened," Ms. Buchanan said.
The upholstery needs some mending, the mirror gilding is fragile, and one fugitive color on the floral carpet has eroded. "There's a worn spot where the green would have been," she said.
On Sept. 18, Ms. Buchanan will give a lecture about the parlor for a conference on period rooms at the Bowes Museum in northern England. She will seek advice from colleagues for arranging and interpreting the plantation furniture.
Displaying the slave livery beside rosewood luxuries, completed in Bridgeport while Confederate states were already seceding, would speak poetic volumes about naïve Southern optimism and pragmatic Yankee compromises.
"I don't need to say anything else through a label," Ms. Buchanan said.
Among academics, Southerners' 19th-century taste for Northern products has become "a very hot topic," Cybèle Gontar, a historian who studies Louisiana furniture, said. She has found New Orleans newspaper ads promoting New York makers, including Duncan Phyfe, alongside notices of slave auctions.