Preserved Decay: Romanticized Beauty? Or Important Document?

As any of my friends will tell you, I love a good house museum.  It’s as though you’re playing voyeur, walking into somebody’s space without them being there, and getting a chance to really analyze how they live their life.  But I’ve become a little bit more critical than I used to be and I sometimes find myself wondering how authentic house museums really are.  Do these spaces actually reflect the “feel” of the room that earlier occupants would have known?

Historic house curators love to talk about the “period appropriate” carpets they have commissioned, and how they have been woven using “historically accurate patterns.”  But when I look at them I can’t help but notice that these carpets have never been used, there are no wear patterns, and there never will be.  Likewise, curators love to talk about using paint analysis to restore the “original” finish in a room, or having wallpaper reproduced from a surviving fragment.  But when I look around, I notice that there’s not a single chip, nick, or ding in the woodwork.  Likewise, the reproduction wallpapers (as beautiful as they are), are pristine.  Nobody has ever brushed against them and no chair has ever caused a scrape or tear as it was pushed up against the wall.  In fact, I often notice that the furniture is kept just a slight distance away from the wall, preventing even a thought of a worn area.

But do these spaces actually reflect real life for anybody?

Our Southern Field Study reminded me that not all house museums follow the idea of restored spaces with perfect surfaces.  While the South has its fair share of beautiful house museums with remarkable furniture, historically accurate wallpaper, and period appropriate carpets, they also have something I’d never seen before: museums that effectively preserve decay and celebrate their worn paint, peeling wallpaper, and unrestored plasterwork. And guess what?  They’re amazing!

During our time in Charleston we visited the Aiken-Rhett House.  Built around 1820, the house was purchased by the Aikens in 1827 and remained in family hands until the 1970s.  Enlarged in the 1830s and again in the late 1850s, the house survived largely unaltered through the 20th century.  Today the Aiken-Rhett House is under the stewardship of the Historic Charleston Foundation which “… has elected to conserve, rather than restore, the rich interior finishes, and so the Aiken-Rhett House remains much as it was during the nineteenth-century.”

Conserved rather than restored, the Aiken-Rhett House really showcases its full story, from its Antebellum beginnings to its more recent history, from 1850s wallpaper to plaster damaged by Hurricane Hugo.  From the street the house looks like many other historic house museums, its bright yellow stucco peeking out from behind the trees.

The Aiken-Rhett House

The Aiken-Rhett House, Charleston

But walk around the veranda and you’ll see that only 2 sides of the Aiken-Rhett House have been restored to that pristine appearance.  Turning the corner, the effects of time and weathering are clear.  What some people might criticize as looking shabby, I loved.  Where the stucco had fallen off, construction details were exposed, and it was immediately clear how the house was built.

Aiken-Rhett, bricks

Brandy Culp, one of curators for the Historic Charleston Foundation, introduced us to the house and its slave quarters, explaining the thought processes behind this sort of interpretation.

Brandy Culp guides the Fellows through the kitchen building at the Aiken-Rhett House

 Brandy Culp guides the Fellows through the kitchen building at the Aiken-Rhett House

While I can’t deny that there is something romantic and beautiful about this kitchen wall, and its chipping paint, these surfaces can also tell us much more.  I had so many questions, all of which could probably be answered from research facilitated by the exposed layers.  What types of paint were used on these surfaces?  What colors can be found in these areas, and how can that inform our understanding of slave spaces?   What can the wear patterns tell us about human use of this, and other, rooms?  How can this kitchen space help us understand Antebellum life in Charleston?  Analyzing the painted surfaces, Susan Buck (a graduate of the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation) has already started thinking about some of these questions, and her essay “Paint Discoveries in the Aiken-Rhett House Kitchen and Slave Quarters” (published in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 10, 2005, pp. 185-198), is well worth reading.

What can we learn from these exposed layers?

What can we learn from these exposed layers

Updated in 1858, the interiors of the Aiken-Rhett House were basically untouched by later generations of the family, and remain so today.  Unfortunately for us, that meant no air conditioning, and the heat index in the Aiken-Rhett house climbed to a balmy 102 degrees during our visit.  But you know how those Winterthur Fellows are: dedicated to their studies and not about to let a little bit of heat stand in the way!  Getting beyond the heat, however, these untouched interiors also meant finishes and furniture dating to 1858 (and even earlier) still survive.




In some areas wallpaper had fallen from the walls, in others paint was chipping, and the upholstery on the furniture was in a variety of states.  But even though the house is now a museum, and despite the obvious cosmetic issues, it wasn’t hard to imagine people living here.  Every where I looked there were signs of life: scuffs, dings, cracks, and holes in the walls!  It seems so silly to get excited about worn surfaces, but how often do you see that in a historic house museum?  Let alone preserved!

A late 19th century view of the Aiken-Rhett House

The same room today.

A late 19th century view of the Aiken-Rhett House (top). The same room today.  Notice the floor fan at the lower right.

Of course, some members of our group looked at the Aiken-Rhett House as a conservation nightmare.  Electric fans kept air circulating, but it was still 102 degrees, less than ideal conditions for museum collections.  But I looked at it another way:  What is a house museum if not a spot for visitors to learn about people and lifestyles of an earlier time?  And how better to learn about living in Charleston than by experiencing the usefulness of deep verandas, cross ventilation, and high ceilings to help mitigate extreme heat?

Traveling with one of Winterthur’s furniture conservators, Stéphanie, I was fascinated to see her reaction as we walked through the rooms.  At first she appeared horrified; how could any museum expose its collections to such harsh conditions?  But as she moved beyond this initial shock, her outlook changed, her iPad came out, and she began snapping photographs furiously.  Coming upon an upholstered settee, with its stitching readily visible, Stéphanie used it as a teaching tool, explaining some of the nuances of historic upholstery that are ordinarily hidden.  By preserving this piece in its “as found” condition rather than reupholstering it to appear as it once did, this became more than just another piece of furniture.  It became a fantastic didactic for explaining 19th century upholstery.

Worn out settee?  Or awesome piece of 19th century material culture?

Worn out settee? Or awesome piece of 19th century material culture?

The next day we left Charleston, but not before visiting another house museum.  Built in the mid-18th century, Drayton Hall, like the Aiken-Rhett House, opened to the public in the 1970s, when it finally left family ownership.  Acquired by the National Trust without furniture, Drayton Hall, like the Aiken-Rhett House, has been preserved rather than restored.

Drayton Hall

Drayton Hall

Without being restored to a single period of time, Drayton Hall’s full story is told through its material fabric.  In the stair hall, some of the decorative plasterwork under the landing has been lost, and a missing stair bracket hints at the brightly colored stain that was used to pigment the wood.


Chimneypieces and woodwork throughout show layers of paint and illustrate renovation and redecoration campaigns undertaken by the Drayton family.  Looking at a first floor door, it is clear where decades’ worth of hands pushed open the door, and the ghost of a pediment over the door speaks to a period when Drayton Hall was a vacant structure, a time when some of its architectural detailing disappeared.


In another room, a Drayton family growth chart survives on a door jamb and I could only wonder how many generations of Draytons compared their growth to that of their ancestors.  Had Drayton Hall been “restored” to reflect a certain time in its past, some, or perhaps all, of these signs of ordinary life would have been lost.  Preserved, they remind visitors of the family that called Drayton Hall home for generations.

Sometimes it's important to be reminded that people lived here once!

Sometimes it’s important to be reminded that people once lived here!

I was completely smitten by the chimneypieces, each seemingly better than the last.  And even the simplest of which has a story to tell.  Placing one Delft tile on the mantel shelf, the curators of Drayton Hall remind visitors that the entire firebox of one bedroom fireplace was once lined with Delft tiles, which have since disappeared.



Some of the other chimneypieces of Drayton Hall.

Some of the other chimneypieces of Drayton Hall.

In addition to being decorative features and spectacular examples of 18th century design, at least one of the chimneypieces at Drayton Hall helps to inform our understanding of how the Drayton family used and decorated their interior spaces.  Look closely at this photograph.  Do you see the evidence of that?

What does this chimneypiece tell us about interior decoration at Drayton Hall?

What does this chimneypiece tell us about interior decoration at Drayton Hall?

Did you see the ghost marks of the picture hanging wire and the frame over the fireplace?  And did you notice how it was hung?

Would you have expected the picture NOT to be centered in the panel?

Would you have expected the picture NOT to be centered in the panel?

How amazing is that?  The ghost marks of the wire and the frame of a picture over the fireplace!  Preserved in the grime, dirt, and dust, all of which would like have been destroyed if the National Trust decided (as many museums still would today) to restore Drayton Hall.  But no, in their decision to preserve the building as it was, the National Trust also preserved little details that suggest to us today how the Draytons hung their art.  How often is it that you get to see a little detail like that?  And how interesting is it to see that it goes against our common thought process today, which would have the artwork centered in the panel, just like we saw at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts later in our trip.

One of the wonderful rooms at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

One of the wonderful rooms at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.  Notice how the modern eye centers the art within the panel.

Now I’m not attacking the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, because they fully admit their rooms are gallery installations, not period rooms, but the little ghost mark at Drayton Hall certainly made me pause and really think about other historic sites I’ve visited.

As I walked around these two houses I found it so refreshing to see signs of wear, chipped paint, and missing details, all evidence of human interaction with a space.  That’s not to say there weren’t major elements that were completely absent, such as textiles at the Aiken-Rhett House or furniture at Drayton Hall,  but I really enjoyed this interpretation.  I think it says a lot for these organizations that decided to conserve and preserve what they had rather than restore and recreate what was missing.  While some people might enjoy the picturesque nature of the the ripped wallpaper and worn paint, they are certainly more than just quaint reminders of an earlier time.  In fact, they give a more complete understanding of the site.

The Aiken-Rhett House and Drayton Hall are more than your average house museum.  They tell an in-depth story about family use, decorative arts, and architecture.  As Drayton Hall’s website so succinctly summarizes, “Our preservation philosophy compels us to preserve the house rather than restore it so that we can continue to learn from, and appreciate, the history contained within its walls.”


By Willie Granston, WPAMC class of 2016

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