Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday breakfast links: Playing house

In case you're elsewhere, or haven't stuck your nose out the door yet, yesterday's high in Chariton was 51 degrees. It's 14 degrees now and headed down. That's a considerable drop. Lots of hot coffee's in order, plus a few ideas for armchair tourism. As a connoisseur of historic house Web sites, I'm here to help.

Two of America's most iconic houses, George and Martha Washington's Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, also have two of the best Web sites out there, so these are good places to begin. You could, if you wished, spend hours at either site and still have remote recesses left to explore. There are opportunities to learn not only about the houses, but also about those who built and occupied them and those who saved and restored them.

Historic sites owned by the government generally have clunky or not especially informative Web sites, so we're fortunate that both of these presidential mansions remain in the hands of private non-profits.

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association rescued the Washington home during 1860, when it was in danger of falling down, and remains in charge. You'll find the cover page here. I'd recommend just scrolling down to "Experience Mount Vernon" and following the handy links to wherever it is you'd like to go first.

I usually begin with house tours, so would click on Mansion, and once there on Room by Room, which will take you to a room-by-room description of all three floors keyed to wonderful three-dimensional plans like the one above of the first floor.

This is just the tip of the informational iceberg at the Mount Vernon site. There are dozens of other buildings and areas, plus the Mount Vernon gardens, grounds and estate in general, to explore; lots of videos to watch --- it's about as close to actually being there as you can get without being there. Plus it's in Virginia, not Iowa, so you'll feel warmer.

Monticello, like Mount Vernon, had close calls. Jefferson, unlike Washington, died virtually bankrupt in 1826 and, during 1831, the mansion was sold by his only surviving child, Martha Jefferson Randolph. Fortunately, Uriah P. Levy, first Jewish U.S. Navy admiral, rescued it during 1834 and his family remained its stewards until 1923.

Another close call involved deterioration that occurred during and after the Civil War. Monticello was seized from the Levy family and sold by the Confederacy. Although the Levys recovered the estate after the war, Uriah's heirs promptly got into a prolonged squabble over his estate and the house was neglected until the late 1870s when family-financed restoration began. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the site from Jefferson Levy in 1923 and continues to operate it.

The cover page to the Monticello Web Site is here. To get to the house, click in the navigation bar on House & Gardens, You'll have all sorts of options at this point, but my favorite toy --- far surpassing for entertainment value anything found at Mount Vernon --- is found under Monticello Explorer in the left sidebar. You can "Explore" for yourself under that header or take a narrated "General House Tour" under "Tour."

If you poke around the Monticello site, you'll find arrayed enough videos, reports, photo galleries and other features to occupy hours --- if you're interested in Jefferson and his era.

There are all sorts of other interesting Web sites devoted to historic Virginia houses, but none have as many bells and whistles of those mounted by Mount Vernon and Monticello.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is custodian of James and Dolly Madison's Montpelier. You'll find its Web site here. Montpelier was vastly aggrandized by the duPont family during its years of ownership, 1901-1983. Marion duPont Scott bequeathed the mansion to the National Trust in 1984. Between 2003 and 2008, utilizing millions given by the Paul Mellon estate, the house was deconstructed and restored to a form the Madisons would have recognized. I followed that process for several years by reading the project blog, but if you're interested in details of the restoration process now, you'll find them here.

I'm fond of Gunston Hall, home of founding father George Mason, in part because of its extraordinary carved woodwork. Owned and administered jointly by the Commonwealth of Virginia and the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, Gunston Hall's excellent Web site is here.

And generations of the Lee family lived at Stratford Hall, birthplace of Robert E. Lee. You'll find its interesting Web site here. The Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation has owned and operated this historic site since 1929.

For those into decoration, there are interesting things to learn at these Web sites, too. One certainly is the fact that our ancestors, even the very affluent ones, had considerable less stuff than we do (although the quality tended to be considerably higher).

In addition, many of these old houses were restored first by people who assumed our forbears loved cream-colored walls and neutral backgrounds, too. Analysis since has established that the founding mothers and fathers actually preferred colors so bright they can seem shocking now --- and lively patterns, too.

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