The Victoria Mansion – 109 Danforth St, Portland
On October 1st, we went to visit the Victoria Mansion on 109 Danforth Street in Portland. Tour tickets are $15.00 for adults, $13.50 for Senior Citizens, $7.00 for college students and $5.00 for ages 17 and under. There is a very well-placed and visible sign which stands on the front lawn to the left of the mansion. Our tour guide was a very outgoing, informative and personable young man named Adam.
As awe-inspiring as the historic Italianate-style brick and brownstone house is from the outside, the interior made the exterior pale by comparison. I was immediately struck by the incredible degree of detailed ornamentation and décor of the rooms. Our tour began in the guest parlor, which in keeping with the tradition of the day, was the most exquisitely furnished room in the house. Before the days of the telephone and the internet, people would present their card and wait to be received by the homeowners. The parlor was specifically designed to impress visitors while they waited. Ostentation was not frowned on, but highly desirable. An ornately carved marble fireplace has a gilded framed mirror above, the intricate design of the carpet is duplicated in the ceiling design, the faces carved in the chairs were echoed again above the windows.
On the first floor, the dining room is decorated with many kinds of wood, some made to look like marble and other stones. Outside the dining room is a marble sink where guests could wash their hands before supper. The large living room is elegant, and all the furniture, wall hangings and art are part of a flowing composition. Throughout the house there is tromp l’oeil painting on the walls, done by an Italian immigrant artist. The main hall, with its soaring ceiling, is dominated by the wide “floating” staircase with a beautiful banister that curves off to the left and right along the upper part of the hall. At the roof level there are decorated windows in an atrium effect. As you walk up the stairs, ahead of you is an intricate and beautiful stained-glass window. Along the upper hall are bedrooms. One has a built-in four-foot-deep bathtub, also very unusual at the time. Perhaps the most striking feature is the ornate Turkish smoking room, where the gentlemen would smoke after dinner. The elaborate chandelier could be lowered so they could see to play cards. Ladies were not allowed to see the men smoking, so pocket doors closed off the room.
At a time when indoor plumbing was still a rarity, the house had a 1000-gallon cistern on the 3rd floor. Gravity fed the water down into the bathrooms and kitchen.
The Victoria Mansion—David Wallace, rt.
The Victoria Mansion, also known as the Morse-Libby House (named after the two families who resided in it until the early part of the 20th century) was built between 1858 and 1860 as a summer home for Ruggles Sylvester Morse and his wife Olive. Originally from Maine, Mr. Morse made his fortune as a hotel proprietor in New Orleans. He and his wife wanted to have a beautiful showcase home in which to spend their summers, and he wanted features found in his hotels to appear in his house. Morse hired architect Henry Austin to build this Italian villa-style house and interior designer/furniture-maker Gustav Herter to design and furnish the interior. That was highly unusual at the time. During the Civil War, although the house was finished, the Morses could not live there because of his Southern sympathies. But they did live there in summers from 1865 to 1893, and Morse even conducted some business in an office/library at the back of the house.
After Ruggles S. Morse passed away in 1893, his widow Olive made a detailed inventory of the mansion’s contents. In 1894 the house and all of its contents were sold to Portland merchant Joseph Ralph Libby. Members of the Libby family continued living in the house until 1928, and during that time, they sold many of the items or gave them away to other family members. After 1928, the house was largely empty and abandoned. During one of the winters, snow broke the atrium windows in the roof of the hall, allowing water to leak in over the years.
After narrowly escaping demolition to make way for a gas station in 1940, the house was saved and it has operated as a museum ever since. As with all historic buildings, the process of restoration is ongoing. Fortunately, about 90% of the original furniture was returned by Libby family members or found through research and purchase, so the house looks almost exactly as it would have in its heyday. It is one of the few historic homes in America which is furnished almost entirely with original pieces.