Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Visit To The McElroy House

Chronica Domus
McElroy House Museum's Opening Times
Photo: Chronica Domus

Two Sunday's ago, with rain finally providing our town with a good drenching, and little to do at home, we hopped into the car and drove to one of the most unusual house museums in San Francisco.

The McElroy House is one of two surviving octagonal shaped homes in the city (originally five were built). The notion of building one's home with eight sides gained popularity in the middle of the 19th century when Orson Squire Fowler, a leading exponent of the style, wrote about the health and financial benefits gained from living in such an unconventionally shaped structure.  His book, The Octagon House: A Home For All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building, published in 1848, lead to thousands of such homes being built across the country (2077 remain standing today), as well as places of worship and schools.  Thomas Jefferson was ahead of his time it seemed, being as he had already designed and built Poplar Forest, his octagonal private retreat, 42 years ahead of Fowler's publication.  I visited that home, situated in a remote area of Virginia, a couple of summers ago as part of a pilgrimage that encompassed viewing every building Jefferson had ever designed.  I recall the docent pointing out the benefits of the octagon shape when harnessing the cooling effects of summer breezes as they waft around the home, through large open windows and doors, arranged on each side of the house.  The fenestration of the home also meant that Jefferson had plenty of sunlight streaming through the structure, keeping it bright and airy, a definite advantage in the days before one could illuminate one's home with electricity. I imagine living in an octagonal house must hold many such advantages, but I also envision the placement of larger pieces of furniture against walls being one of the challenges.

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The entrance to the McElroy Octagon House Museum
Photo: Chronica Domus

The McElroy House, was constructed in 1861 for William C. McElroy and his family .  The home sustained severe damage in the great quake of 1906, but was repaired and continued to be used as a family home for many years thereafter.  By 1951 the house was unoccupied and in a state of decay until the The National Society Of The Colonial Dames of America purchased it for one dollar.  Yes, you did read that correctly, a dollar!  However, the Dame's work was cut out for them as the society needed to raise enough funds to move the house across the street, where it presently resides, as well as repair it.  Today, the house acts as the headquarters for the California branch of  the society, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

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The cornerstone placed by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in 1953 during the home's renovation
Photo: Chronica Domus

This was my second visit to the house.  The first, back in the mid 1990's, caused me great excitement, due to the enthusiasm of the volunteers who staff the premises (the Dames).  In my naive state as a newly settled Londoner in San Francisco, I inquired how one, such as myself, might join the society.  You should have seen the animated look on the faces of the good-natured ladies.  This was one club to which I was never gaining access!

My interest in visiting the house was to view the museum's collections of decorative arts, and to see the gardens in their spring-blooming state (in winter!).  There are very few places in California one can observe artifacts from the Colonial and Federal periods, and although the house is modestly scaled, there is a surprising variety and number of items on display.  Unfortunately, no photographs within the house were permitted so I cannot show you some of what caught my eye.

Chronica Domus
A pictorial of the interior of the McElroy House as seen in my copy of the September 1997 issue of the now-defunct Colonial Homes magazine
Photo: Chronica Domus

One can see examples of American furniture (Chippendale, Queen Anne, Federal), Chinese and English ceramics (Chinese export porcelain, English lustreware, creamware, Staffordshire), American and English silver and glass, oriental rugs, early American samplers, looking glasses, and various portraits and paintings.  One notable portrait was that of Frances Taylor "Fanny" Madison Rose, painted by Charles Peale Polk, the Baltimore artist.  Our very affable docent informed us that Montpelier, the Virginia estate of Dolly and James Madison, had requested the portrait of his niece be permanently loaned to them upon discovering its whereabouts. The Dames politely declined their offer with alacrity.

An impressive collection of historic documents related to the founding of the nation, bearing the signatures of 54 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, is housed in one of the rooms upstairs.  There are also many books on genealogy and American decorative arts in the small library.  Two further rooms (a child's room and a master bedchamber), complete the public tour of the upstairs area.

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The house seen through the garden's magnificent blooming magnolia and camellia shrubs
Photo: Chronica Domus

The surrounding garden is a small corner of tranquility in the bustle of the city.  Mature trees and shrubs, many in bloom at the time of our visit, dominate the landscape.  When the house was built, a century and a half ago, this area of the city known as Cow Hollow, was practically in the country.  Today, one could easily drive right past the place and not notice it among the urban sprawl.

I hope that you too will plan a visit to this octagonal gem when you next find yourself in San Francisco.  To avoid disappointment, I recommend you check opening times carefully as the museum is only open to the public on the second Sunday of each month (except for January and legal holidays), and on the second and fourth Thursday, for just three hours (twelve noon until 3 o'clock in the afternoon).

Is there an octagon house in your town, or have you ever set foot in one?  What do you think the advantages and disadvantages of living in such a home would be?

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Importance of Using Old-Fashioned Brown Paper: An Open Letter To (Well Intentioned) On-Line Sellers

Chronica Domus
Brown paper packages on their way to the post office
Photo: Chronica Domus

Dear On-Line Seller,

Thank you so much for mailing my porcelain tureen to me.  Yes, it did arrive safely, but only just.

You see, I was away from my office the day it was delivered and a kindly work colleague received the package on my behalf.  She quickly informed me via email that a frozen cake had arrived, and that said cake was now in the freezer of our work's kitchen.  She had attached a note to the box informing the janitors (who clean and empty our refrigerator/freezer at the end of the week), not to remove the cake until the date of my return, which was at least a week away.

I was now agog to know who would possibly send me a frozen cake through the United States Postal Service, and more importantly, why.  It was not my birthday, nor was it my wedding anniversary.  I was not celebrating anything to warrant a cake.  My head was spinning trying to extract the answer from my ever-failing brain.

Come Monday morning, bright and early, I settle into my office and soon remember the cake.  Down the hallway I trot, towards the kitchen.  I open the refrigerator door and there it was, my frozen cake, tucked into the little freezer compartment, waiting to be devoured.  I make my way back to my desk and attempt to open the icy box.  Upon closer examination, and to my utter astonishment, I quickly deduce that this is no frozen cake.  This  is my recently purchased item, delivered to me in someone else's frozen cake box.

Please, please, dear On-Line Seller, next time you choose to recycle (admirably) a frozen cake box to mail one of your sold items, do remember the importance of wrapping said box in plain old-fashioned brown paper.  That way, there will be no confusion on the receiving end of things.

In this case, no harm was done, and a good chuckle ensued between myself and my work colleague on relaying the story of the box's contents to her.  I can only imagine the disaster waiting to happen if anything other than impervious sturdy porcelain, that can withstand Arctic temperatures, was held within.

On-Line Buyer

My French porcelain tureen
Photo: Chronica Domus

This is indeed a true story, and it happened to me just recently.  I thought you too would appreciate the amusement in this cautionary tale, and procure a roll of old-fashioned brown paper the next time you find yourself mailing an item in a cardboard box printed with instructions to "KEEP CONTENTS FROZEN".

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mourning Howard

Sophia Haine's Handiwork from 1797
Photo: Chronica Domus

A dozen or so years ago, during one of our journeys to London to visit my relatives, my husband and I did what we do on each of our visits there; we spent the day pleasantly trolling some of the city's antiques shops.  Walking along Church Street, close to where I formerly worked on Marylebone Road, we popped into a little antiques shop to take a look at what was on offer.

At the time, I recall the walls of our drawing room being quite bare, and we were both eager to remedy that situation.  Young & Sons, the shop into which we had wandered, had a vast selection of art pieces dating from the late 18th to early 19th centuries.  The proprietor was very knowledgeable and guided us to several pieces that might possibly fit our needs.  It was not until we went downstairs, into the basement level that resembled an Aladdin's cave, that we found it.  In the corner of the shop was a piece of art that we both silently knew was going home with us.  And, I'm happy to report, it did.

That was our initial introduction to the fascinating world of memorial art and all that is held within its symbolic meaning.  We have been on the prowl for more ever since.

Today's post will deconstruct some of the features that constitute a piece of artwork, such as the one we purchased, dedicated to the business of mourning in the late Neoclassical period.  This example is of English origin, but other countries once memorialized their dead in a similar fashion. 

Firstly, we do not know the relationship between the artist and Howard, the dearly departed gentleman who is the subject of this particular memorial.  Clearly the piece was created with great sentimentality as the artist, Sophia Haine, took the time to sign and title her work.  On the wooden backboard, she has inked an inscription that reads "Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard, Sophia Haine's work, finish'd Dec 15th, (1797)".

The artist's inscription
Photo: Chronica Domus

This tender dedication makes me long to know just as much about the artist as her deceased subject.  Miss Haine not only shows great skill through her use of  the needle and paintbrush (or would that be ink pen), but also her strong sense of caring and humanity is evident in the words she carefully chose to title her work .

Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard
Detail of Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard
Photo: Chronica Domus

The piece depicts the central character, a young female with flaxen hair and blue eyes, looking forlorn as she mourns alongside Howard's tomb.  Delicate silk and wool felt are the primary materials used to construct the scene, whose features are embroidered with a variety of stitches showcasing the talents of the artist.  The woman's face and hands, together with the letters on the plinth, are made of vellum that has been carefully cut to shape, and skillfully embellished with either watercolor paint or colored ink.  Miss Haine was surely an accomplished young lady to not only have mastered painting, but also embroidery to such good effect.  I assume the artist was indeed young as it was the norm to study the feminine arts as part of one's well-rounded education.  Strong sepia tones dominate the whole scene, with the occasional touch of deep blue to emphasize the eyes and the inky trunk of the willow tree.

There are many symbols of mourning present in this piece.  As was typical of the Neoclassical period of mourning art, a dominant weeping willow tree, symbolic of grief and sorrow, arches gracefully over the urn and plinth of Howard.  Another tree, possibly an oak, is shown with a broken branch to signify the loss of life.  Brown earth tones beneath the female mourner portray decay and mortality.

The urn, made of felt, is a strong Neoclassical motif related to death and still in use to this day.  It is a feature repeatedly seen in mourning pieces and is as central to the picture as the mourner.  The fact that this particular urn is draped could possibly tell us that an older person is being mourned, perhaps a father figure to the female character.  The urn sits atop a plinth, yet another mark of bereavement, and aids in elevating the urn skyward.

 Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard
Philanthropy at the tomb of Howard
Photo: Chronica Domus

This, our first piece of mourning art, has slowly evolved into a small collection that graces the walls of our home.  Those pieces, however, are composed of an entirely separate element of mourning, something that would perhaps be considered macabre by many in today's world; human hair.  I plan on featuring some of them in future posts.

I hope you'll agree with me that this "long dead" genre of mourning our deceased, by way of such personal expression of creativity, is a fascinating subject.  I feel honored to be the steward of Miss Haine's work; at least for this generation.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Sweet Smell of Hyacinths

Each January, after the Christmas and New Year holiday celebrations have passed and the house is returned to its less decorated state, I yearn to have something pretty to look at; something to tide me over until the spring avalanche of bulbous blooms arrive at the local flower market and in my garden.  The solution, I find, is satisfied by a humble container of sweet smelling hyacinths.

Hyacinth bulbs eager to be forced into bloom
Photo: Chronica Domus

If you have ever forced hyacinth bulbs into bloom, you will agree that the rewards are well worth the minimal effort required to enjoy weeks of delightfully scented and pretty blooms.

Can you smell them yet?
Photo: Chronica Domus

In past years, when attempting to propagate hyacinths in water, I utilized special glass hyacinth vases to force single bulbs into bloom.  After a few successes, I moved onto using larger containers that can hold up to half a dozen bulbs comfortably, producing a diminutive portable garden when the flowers have fully opened.

A diminutive hyacinth garden in a tureen
Photo: Chronica Domus

This year, I chose to use an old English ironstone tureen, but any waterproof shallow container can be pressed into service for the task at hand.  I fill my tureen with stones that I save from year to year, place the bulbs on top of the stone bed, and add enough water to reach the base of the bulbs.  I then place the tureen in a cool dark corner of my home for the next three weeks, moving it to a sunnier spot for the remainder of the time until the bulbs have bloomed.  Periodically, I add water to the container so that the roots are kept moist.  Within four to six weeks from planting time, six plump white flowers announce themselves with spectacularly strong fragrance, filling my home and heart with renewed hope of spring's arrival.

If you purchase enough bulbs for successive forcings, you will be assured of an even longer bloom time, possibly taking you right into spring.  I am about to force my final bag of hyacinths for this season and will post on the progress of those in the next month.

Please do consider the purchase of a few hyacinth bulbs for your home.  I believe you will be rewarded handsomely for your efforts with beautiful blooms throughout the months of January and February, when not much else is blooming.  Spring bulbs are generally stocked at garden centers in the autumn months, so plan ahead for next year.

Hyacinths not only provide visual joy, but are a delight to the nose, at least if you are a kindred spirit and enjoy the sweet smell of hyacinths wafting through your home.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Annual Marmalade Making Adventure and How It All Began

Sunday morning breakfast consisting of this year's grapefruit bergamot marmalade, served from an old Paris porcelain confiturier, and a cup of strong English Breakfast tea. Scrumptious!
Photo: Chronica Domus

Several years ago, on a trip to one of the towns that line the beautiful northern California coast, my husband wandered into a little specialty shop that produced and sold jams and preserves.  Out of curiosity, he purchased a jar of orange marmalade.  His purchase was prompted by the fact that my favorite marmalade was no longer stocked at our local market, where we had been buying it for as far back as I can remember.  My husband's purchase was intended as a gift to me in hopes that I would like what I had tasted and perhaps have a new favorite preserve to slather on my daily morning toast.

Let me explain, although I personally enjoy orange marmalade my husband does not, or more accurately did not, at the time.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I grew up in England, where marmalade was a staple at our breakfast table, as was typical of many other breakfast tables up and down the country.  My husband was curious about his gift to me and reluctantly tried the marmalade for himself.  To his great surprise, he actually liked the bitter flavor.  He immediately deemed it a tasty comestible and "unlike any other marmalade" he had tasted before.  I explained to him that although his prior prejudices were warranted (the poor thing had thus far sampled only gelatinous cloying goop, the type commercially available on most market shelves), this particular variety was how real marmalade should taste; tangy and bitter with lots of peel.  He was hooked, and his creative juices had been awakened.

As is typical of my husband when undertaking any project he sets his mind to, he headed deep into the mysteries of producing an old-fashioned, home-made marmalade to my great excitement.  Off he went, shopping list to hand, in search of jars and lids, and a huge pot to accommodate his bubbling sticky mass. He toiled over pounds of oranges, chopping, peeling, scraping, collecting pith and seed in hopes of producing enough pectin to thicken his creations (no store bought boxed pectin for him - I told you he was doing things the old-fashioned way).  He stood at the stove for hours on end, sampling for sweetness and viscosity until he declared he was done and had concocted a marmalade that would be worthy of my delight.  And, indeed, he was correct.  I could not be happier with the results of his labors. 

 Into the jar it goes
Photo: Chronica Domus

First came the traditional Seville orange marmalade, then an aromatic floral blood orange, which later evolved into yet another recipe for a bergamot blood orange variety.  Oh heaven, I was awash in golden nectar!  My husband had indeed cracked the mysteries of producing a traditional bitter orange marmalade that is now a daily treat at breakfast time for us.

A small sampling of this year's home-made Seville Orange marmalade in vintage jars
Photo: Chronica Domus

The tinkering has yet to cease, and this January's efforts have produced an exquisitely tasty grapefruit bergamot marmalade that makes my mouth water just thinking of it.  Delish!  I always like to remind my husband that his initial gift to me, from the specialty preserve shop, has turned out to be the gift that continues to give.

This season will be the fifth year in succession he has stocked our larder shelves with his wonderful marmalades.  His annual efforts (three varieties this year, amounting to four batches of 15 to 24 jars), keep us and our fortunate friends, well supplied for the year ahead.

Paddington Bear hogging his favorite comestible

Tell me, do you eat marmalade, or even like the stuff?  If not, what do you spread on your toast?  Perhaps you'll be inspired to make marmalade yourself one day and discover what my family, and the bear from darkest Peru, have in common.

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