In Blue Hill, Maine, the graceful house built in by Jeremiah Thorndike Holt, influenced by the designs of Asher Benjamin, has over looked the tiny village square---triangle, really---since 1818. For the last forty years, it has been the home of the local Historical Society, who display there the artifacts that bring to life the town's past.
Holt House in 1824, detail from Morning View of Blue Hill Village, by Jonathan Fisher
Barely altered since original construction, the house required only minor repairs and redecoration when purchased by the Historical Society. This decoration reflected the taste of the era in historic interiors. The showpiece of the Holt's 'mansion house' was the parlor, with wordwork carved with a rope motif, and recessed window embrasures with folding shutters. Paint scraping at the time indicated a green-ish paint, and a drab dark olive color was chosen. These scrapings also determined the interesting fact that the skirting boards in the room had been painted with what the restorer referred to as 'cart wheel blue'. Sadly, it was decided, in the interest of 'good taste', not to replicate this scheme. A modern commercial wallpaper in a 'colonial' design was used absent resources for a more appropriate paper.
The Holts, shipowners, suffered reverses soon after the house was completed, and a leaded glass fanlight was never installed in the space over the front door. Instead, the fan is a board, with a spiderweb grid of lathing applied, painted black, with gilt circles, to imitate a glass fanlight---a most charming economy.
Last year, the parlor decoration was showing its age, and the house committee, under the leadership of Susan Gurin, decided to undertake a new interpretation for the room. A person who had been a member of the original committee 40 years previously remembered the 'cart wheel blue' reference, and a scraping determined that indeed not only was the skirting board originally blue, but also the floor. New scrapings of the woodwork, with new knowledge of how paint ages, indicated that actually the greenish hue was due to the deterioration of oils in the original pigment, and that the woodwork was likelier a 'stone' color, fashionable in the early 1800's. The wallpaper was removed, and the room re-painted in this color scheme. The transformation was remarkable---the blue floor echoed the harbor only a few dozen feet from the parlor, and the off white paint showed the woodwork to best advantage. Now the question remained: What to do about the walls? What would be appropriate?
The Holt House parlor, in its olive green phase
As it happened, 30 ago, when another house in the village, built in 1803 and occupied by Matthew Ray, a toolmaker, was being re-wired, it was discovered that hidden behind the later Greek Revival woodwork and walls installed in during an 1840's remodeling, the original Federal parlor and original decorative scheme were intact, down to woodwork wallpaper and paint colors. The wallpaper appeared to date from around 1815, and was probably manufactured in Boston. It was a boldly designed neo-classical stripe, with an elaborate floral border. The paper was probably printed in Boston, and was made from large square sheets rather than rolls, as modern paper is. The border, more finely printed, appears to be of French manufacture, a reminder that expensive and fashionable goods were available up here even at that early date for those who could afford them. Although it was impractical to completely uncover this time capsule, samples of the wallpaper were rescued and saved.
After viewing commercially available period designs, the Historical Society decided to reproduce this wallpaper, a surviving example of the the taste and goods available in the town in the early 1800's. But how to reproduce it? Enter the amazing firm of Adelphi Paper Hangings, makers of authentic block printed wallpapers. Steve Larson of Adelphi was contacted, estimates were made, and the Historical Society decided to take the bold step. Fundraising was undertaken, with rolls available for adoption at the exact figure of $378.00 per, and they were snapped up by generous members of the community.
A Sample of the original paper, printed on square sheets of paper, above, and a section of the border, probably French, below
The original paper was block printed, probably in Boston, on square sheets of paper. The design was very unusual, with an overall foliate scroll rendered in three colors in stripes of varying width. The border, which economics prevents from reproduction at this time, was a multicolor floral of French manufacture, showing the stylish goods that were available on the Eastern Frontier even at that early date.
A workman at Adelphi pulls a strike-off of the reproduced paper from one of the three carved blocks used to produce the design
The sample has remarkable fidelity to the original
Printing blocks were hand-carved by Adelphi's craftsmen, colors were matched (one section of the original paper retained particularly clean and bright samples), and only a few days ago, the samples were pulled and approved, and within weeks the paper was complete. The first sample was taped up a few days ago and approved, and within the next weeks, the parlor will greet visitors for the summer, with its original blue & white paint scheme enhanced by a handmade reproduction wallpaper in a pattern familiar to earlier residents of the town.
The parlor, restored to 'stone' colored woodwork, bare plaster walls awaiting the new wallpaper. Notice the blue floor and skirting boards, the original color scheme
The sample is hung on the wall. The paper will be hung above the dado only. The two gilt framed lithographs of Italian Ports were brought back as mementoes by a Blue Hill sea captain in the1840's.
Adelphi will be adding the design to their catalog, tentatively called 'Blue Hill Fancy Stripe'. While the Dilettante makes the disclaimer that he in no way has commercial affiliation with the wonderful company, he would be delighted to see the paper sell well so the Historical Society can benefit from royalties.
The Holt House is located on Water Street in Blue Hill Village, a National Register Historic District, and is open to the public during the summer: Tuesdays and Fridays: 1-4 PM; Saturdays 11 AM to 2 PM
And for those who cannot get enough Dilettante, or even those who get a little too much, I can be found in print, not once, but twice in the July issue of Portland Magazine, holding forth on a famous modernist house on Mt. Desert (click HERE) , and about scenic wallpapers in Maine houses (click HERE).
And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some dry wall to prime, or my new store will never be ready.