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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Early American Interiors

George Washington slept here...often.

Washington slept here too, his
bedroom at Valley Forge.
Several years ago I covered Early American Painting. A month or so ago I wrote about American Colonial Interiors. At the time, I promised to make my way up through the history of the United States by visiting the outstanding homes from the various architectural periods involved. Today, we'll be looking at the period from the founding of our country in 1776 up through to the 1840s when the Gothic Revival style began to dominate both the outsides and insides of stylish American homes. While we might get by calling the interior décor of this period Early American, architecturally speaking it's called Classical Revival. And, as I noted in the opening paragraph in discussing the outside of such homes, it would be convenient if there were some kind of radical break between Colonial interiors and that which followed. Alas, there isn't. The Late Colonial interior became the Early American interior, but in name only. Other than that, the changes in tastes and design came very gradually. Add to that the fact that, as in architecture, geography played a part as well at least two, fairly distinct architectural styles--the Georgian and the Federal style. Georgian was named for England's King George III (and thus suggest colonial stylings). The fact is the Georgian style tended to be most popular after the Revolution, during the final years of the 1700s with the Federal style coming into play during the early decades of the 1800s. These two styles can be differentiated in terms of interior design, but the differences are subtle. In other words, it ain't easy.

Washington's Mount Vernon as seen today.
I guess it's only appropriate if we want to discuss post-colonial Early American interior decorating there's no better place to begin that with the father of our country and his estate, called Mount Vernon, on the Potomac River just south of the city named for him. Though the house had been in the family for a generation or two, it was during the Revolutionary War when it was enlarged, remodeled, and most importantly, redecorated to approximating what we see today in visiting the estate (above). And while we're at it, a few hundred miles inland, located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, we find the equally authentic Early American home of Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, our third president. Designed and built (and later redesigned and rebuilt) by Jefferson himself, the interior of Monticello, as restored today, is that of a man as familiar with what went into his new home as with creating the house itself (below). Though they differ somewhat, reflecting each man's personality and tastes, both homes are the gold standard for what constitutes authentic Early American interior design.

Jefferson was something of a Francophile thus his home décor is somewhat
more French in flavor while Washington's Mount Vernon is more English.
Carter's Grove's Refusal Room.
Virginia also boasts yet another plantation estate of the same era as Mount Vernon just south of Williamsburg, Virginia, called Carter's Grove. Washington and Jefferson were both familiar with the estate, and especially two of the beautiful ladies who lived there. Each proposed marriage and both were turned down. The richly paneled, Early American drawing room where each future president met disappointment, has since come to be known as the "Refusal Room" (right).

When discussing the décor of Colonial era homes, I went from room to room. With Early American interiors there's little need for that beyond a quick peek into the distinctive tastes of our first and third presidents. An Early American kitchen, for instance, even in these grand houses, changed little in the hundred years from the colonial era through the Georgian and Federal periods. However, in the next hundred years, it changed drastically. Carter's Grove actually boasts two kitchens, the Early American "breakfast room" (below) and a "modern" one added during the 1920s. The estate was privately owned and occupied until the 1960s when it was opened for tourists. Later it became part of Colonial Williamsburg. Early American stairways (left) were a different matter. They became noticeably more ornate. It would appear that Washington may have modeled Mount Vernon's grand staircase (bottom-left) after that of Carters Grove (top-left).

The Carter's Grove "breakfast room" kitchen."
Early American styles gradually grew less
intricate as they became machine made.
No discourse on Early American interiors would be complete without a basic primer on the three major furniture styles prevalent during this period--Chippendale, Sheraton, and Federal (left). Georgian Chip-pendale was a late 18th century style ornately carved to reflect Rococo, English, Chinese, or Greek influences. The Sheraton style also dates from the late 18th-century and is often confused with Hepplewhite and other Georgian styles, but with straighter, more upright lines. Sheraton chairs often feature lyre-shaped backs and intricate inlays of veneers. The Federal style evolved in the early 19th-century displaying various interpretations of Georgian styles, Duncan Phyfe variations of the Sheraton style, as well as some French influences. In its heavier versions we see the English style Boston rocker and Hitchcock chair. Of lesser importance are Hepplewhite, Adam, Regency, and Shaker styles, which range from highly intricate to exceedingly plain in the case of Shaker items.

The American tendency to indulge in too much of a good thing.
I would also be remiss in discussing Early American furniture and decorating styles if I did not present a few examples of rooms which might be intended to reflect Early American authenticity but in fact, go way beyond anything Washington or Jefferson would have recognized (above). As a general rule, if it seems overstuffed and looks fairly comfortable, as with the couch and chair above, it's likely not authentically Early American. By the same token, if you visit the Blue Room, or the Green Room (but not the Red Room) in the White House (below), you'll be looking at a reasonably good sample of Early Americana décor.

Electrified Early American décor.

The Early American "bathroom" at Mount Vernon.
Washington relieved himself here.


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