Straight out of Dorchester
Two rooms from a 19th-century home offer a rare window into local history
In the mid-1970s Jonathan Fairbanks, then the Museum of Fine Arts’ curator of American decorative arts, received an intriguing request from a Dorchester woman named Mary Bowker.
She was the last occupant of an ornate Gothic Revival house built about 1840 on Claybourne Street, with Gothic spires, diamond-paned arched windows, and bold ornamentation on the inside. It had been built by her great-grandfather Roswell Gleason, a successful metalsmith and entrepreneur.
Bowker, who was nearing 90 and planning to move to a nursing home, was worried about the fate of the house, since the neighborhood, in Fields Corner, had been troubled by break-ins and arson. Could Fairbanks think of a way to help preserve it?
As a matter of fact, he could. It might be a tad impractical to haul the whole house to the MFA, but the museum could certainly buy a piece of it, and he had his eye on the dining room and parlor. In 1977, the museum purchased the two rooms, or at least pieces of them: the Greek Revival woodwork, fireplaces, brass chandeliers, and other architectural details. (It was a good thing, too: The house burned down in 1982.)
Shopping for rooms wasn’t as strange as it might seem. In the 1920s and ’30s there was a flurry of curatorial room-buying in the country, particularly from Colonial and early Federal houses. Curators scouted for houses that were going to be destroyed, and then purchased rooms, or sections of rooms, that could be reinstalled in their galleries to illustrate period architecture and used as backdrop for historical furniture and artifacts.
One reason Fairbanks was infatuated with the Roswell Gleason rooms was that the MFA had been collecting his work since 1914.
Gleason, born in 1799, had a large manufacturing plant in Dorchester and an entrepreneurial bent. As a metalsmith, he was something of a populist: He worked in pewter but made much of his work in silver plate, using the electroplate process developed in England. “It looked like silver but was a fraction of the cost,’’ said Kate Lanford Joy, a Gleason scholar who consults with the MFA. “He was always able to assess what the market would be interested in; he was always at the beginning of every new idea.’’
His most celebrated idea was his “Magic Caster,’’ a tabletop contraption that spun around and had doors that opened to reveal cruets for ketchup and other condiments.
But Fairbanks was also interested in Gleason’s parlor and dining room because “they were excellent examples of New England taste of a successful industrialist,’’ said Fairbanks, now curator emeritus. “The MFA’s period rooms basically stopped with the Federal Period.’’ These rooms would extend the time frame by more than a generation, making it possible to exhibit Boston-made furniture from the mid-19th century in its natural decorative habitat.
The rooms are adjacent to each other in the Art of the Americas Wing, just as they were on Claybourne Street, and have been lavishly decorated, with some of Gleason’s original furnishings, including elaborate brass gas-lighted chandeliers, or gasoliers, as they were known. A centerpiece of the parlor is Gleason’s original center table.
Decorating the rooms in a manner that would have pleased Roswell Gleason demanded some creativity, and there were only a few clues to go on. A section of wall that had been salvaged from the parlor was painstakingly analyzed by material scientists, who deduced that the original paint color pigment was green; the curators went with a Benjamin Moore variant of it. To enhance the room they combed through period archives and imagined a carpet Gleason might have liked. (It’s a dazzling red and green medallion design.) It was commissioned from an English carpet manufacturer in business since 1790, said Dennis Carr, assistant curator of decorative arts and sculpture for Art of the Americas.
The centerpiece of the dining room is a new acquisition, an elaborate extension table by Cornelius Briggs, who operated one of the largest furniture-making shops in Boston during the first half of the 19th century. Like Gleason, Briggs was fond of patenting his unusual designs including, in 1843, what he called a “new and useful Improvement . . . in Extension-Tables.’’ It had a crank concealed beneath the mahogany top.
“Gleason would have approved,’’ Carr said. “The table was a quirky new design, just like his own Magic Caster. These men must have known each other.’’
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.