The House Of Many Layers


Consciously or not, upper- and middle-class Americans used nostalgia for the past and reverence for history as a tool for “civilizing” the new immigrants while maintaining a cultural barrier. American values could be taught better than in any textbook by crafting a history in buildings and filling the rooms with examples of America at its best. The phrase good breeding shows up often in connection with the Colonial Revival. In an 1878 magazine article the noted Boston architect R. S. Peabody wrote of the style’s “disciplined and almost universal refinement and dignity, as well as the absence of vulgarity and eccentricity even when display is attempted. These virtues, not too common in our days, lend an added charm to it for us.”


In the early twentieth century, museums began to install period rooms with the same purpose openly expressed. Even later, during the 1924 ceremonies that inaugurated the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a speaker explained: “Many of our people are not cognizant of our traditions and the principles for which our fathers struggled and died. The tremendous changes in the character of our nation and the influx of foreign ideas utterly at variance with those held by the men who gave us the Republic threaten, and unless checked may shake the foundations of our Republic.”


Despite the mantle of such certainty, the style called Colonial was eclectically applied. It seemed to describe any building from before 1820, and it showed up in at least a dozen variations—Georgian, Adam, Dutch, and Shingle among them. The art historian Vincent Scully wrote about the first architectural critics who paid attention to the style: “Whether the house in question happened to be of the earlier, more medieval or later, more Palladian type seems to have made no difference to the writers; it was all old, colonial, and picturesque.”

Later, Scully noted, the word generally came to mean “Georgian.” It is, of course, Georgian splendor, in both its incarnations, that animates Carter’s Grove. The decision to preserve Carter’s Grove as a Colonial Revival house rather than as a Colonial one, as a Picasso rather than as a Rembrandt, reflects a growing awareness at historical museums that history is a continuing process.


For years critics of Colonial Williamsburg and other history museums have objected to the presentation of history as neatly cut slices of time, where change occurred slowly and remarkably peacefully, if at all. At Carter’s Grove the guides offer a much fuller view, stressing the role of change over time and presenting a varied cast of characters. The guided tour passes through the room where the McCraes’ cook, Edna Washington, lived; her ironing board is set up in an alcove with a dress waiting to be ironed. In the kitchen, alongside a spinning wheel and cast-iron pots, are more modern implements, like an electric waffle iron and a coffeepot.


In 1933 W. Duncan Lee, Mrs. McCrae’s architect, recalled an issue he had just grappled with in redoing Carter’s Grove: “An old building can be and should be faithfully restored, and left at that if it is to be used for museum purposes solely, but if a person buys an old house, pays a lot of money for it, and intends to use it as a year-round home, he is not going to be satisfied to take his bath in a tin foot-tub and go to bed with a candle in one hand and a warming-pan in the other just for archaeological reasons.” Reflecting some of the newest trends in historical interpretation, Carter’s Grove is right up-to-date—and very agreeably old-fashioned.