Friday, September 16, 2011

Bartow Pell Mansion (Bronx): Pelham Bay Park

The Bartow-Pell Mansion is a beautifully-situated Greek Revival historic home from the 1840s (part of the Historic House Trust of New York City), but it is ridiculously difficult to get to by public transport!  If you don't have a car (consider a Zip Car if you don't own one) take a pass on this NYC tourist site.  If you try public transportation like I did, you are likely to face a lot of waiting/standing (there are no benches) and about a 2 hour plus trip in each direction (coming from midtown Manhattan).  The #6 subway that goes out to Pelham Bay Park are fewer and farther between than one would imagine if you live and work in the City (only about half of the #6 trains go out to the stop).  Then the #45 Bronx Beeline Bus only comes around once an hour, and there is no attempt to even come close to being on schedule.  Finally, the guided tours (only available on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays--and first Fridays with an additional "trolley"/bus ride) of the mansion are not coordinated with the bus schedule at all, and even if you are the only one at the mansion, you are going to be made to wait until the designated tour times (a quarter past the hour).

Ok, so that is it for the venting.  The English style gardens are reminiscent of the beautiful sets in BBC productions of Jane Austin movies.  There are perfectly manicured portions around a central goldfish pond (see recently renovated back garden at right) as well as a wilder area beyond the wrought iron gates.  I spent some time wandering and then parked myself at a table and chairs to read a book until I was beckoned for the next tour.

The interior was refurbished to be period appropriate to the mid-1800s (see the beautiful original spiral staircase at left that is a great setting for wedding photos--the home can be rented out for weddings, teas, and other special events) but it appears that most of the furnishings and artwork are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, etc.

As the tour guide informed us, this house is furnished with whatever the curator can beg, borrow, and steal.  Not all of the pieces are the best examples of period furnishings, but at least there aren't any empty shelves and walls.  The curator has taken great care to appropriately decorate and furnish the home.  There are a few original pieces to the home but the majority are "temporary" installations (although the lesser paintings and furniture are likely to remain, as they are not the quality usually exhibited at institutions like the Metropolitan).

The best part of the visit was provided by the tour guide.  Our guide was well informed, put the home and its various inhabitants in context, and shared great anecdotes.  I learned about the reason for ceiling medallions (to catch the smoke and ash from the lit candles of old chandeliers in order to delay the need for the routine repainting of ceilings) (see right).  I also learned about the origins of well known but perplexing sayings like "the rule of thumb;" the width of a thumb is the thickness of the rod with which a husband could legally whip his wife (wives were considered chattel at the time--although, as this home was built with the inherited wealth from the Lorillard Tobacco Company (one of the oldest companies still in operation in the U.S. and the makers of Newport cigarettes), Robert Bartow is believed to have treated his wife, Maria Lorillard as an equal).

The guide also explained the origins of "watch your beeswax."  He explained the need for the fire screens that were used to protect people from overheating when seated close to the numerous fireplaces (see left) that were used to heat the home, and he told us about how common it was for people of the 19th century to suffer from facial scars from small pox and chicken pox illnesses.  He noted that men of the day could grow beards but women were only able to cover their scars with beeswax-based makeup.  When ladies sat too close to a fireplace, their face could actually melt and a kindly comment to such a lady might be "mind your beeswax" so that she could know to excuse herself and re-apply another coating.  Ha!

Finally, I also learned about how because water had to be brought in and heated by hand, families in the 19th century (before the time of indoor plumbing) shared bathwater.  The order of use started with the master of the house, followed by the mistress, and then the children by age order.  If you can imagine, in homes with many children (the Bartows had 7) that would make the water quite brown by the time the baby could be bathed.  From that phenomenon came the warning, "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."  Yikes.

Although I had hoped that more of the home's furnishings were original, I could appreciate the care that was taken to display the home to its best advantage.  The 14' ceilings on the main floor are highlighted with vertically placed artwork and the freestanding staircase, and the 13' ceilings on the second floor showcase a special 19th century canopy bed (the only Charles Honore Lannuier bed known to still exist in its original condition was donated to the Bartow Pell Mansion Museum by the descendants of the original owners Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Bell of New York) (see right).  Each room is well appointed to demonstrate the way the inhabitants would have used the home.  There was no indoor plumbing, central heating, or large wardrobes so there are wash basins, chamber pots, pot bellied stoves and fire places, bed warmers, and a notable lack of closets.

I learned a lot the day I spent visiting the Bartow Pell Mansion, but I don't think I will be going back there any time soon without a better means of getting there. Fair warning to all who might visit this historic home.

1 comment:

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