One of the most cherished Christmas traditions in Portland, Maine, is a festive visit to the elegantly decked out Victoria Mansion. The stately Italian Villa Revival style home stands proudly on a hill overlooking Portland's harbor, nestled among other elegant edifices that grace the streets of the city's Western Promenade. But, whereas most of the palatial homes in the neighborhood have been converted to multi-family dwellings or condos over the years, the Victoria Mansion remains preserved as a museum to Portland's wealthy merchant barons who once ruled the commerce and cultural life of Maine's largest city.
The house, built between 1858-1860, occupies a plot, strategically located near city gas, water, and sewer lines at 109 Danforth Street, blocks from the Portland Museum of Art in what is now called the city's "arts district." It was originally constructed as a summer home for Ruggles Sylvester Morse and his wife Olive. Both native Mainers, they lived most of the year in New Orleans, where Morse made a fortune operating luxury hotels. Designed by architect Henry Austin of New Haven, Connecticut, the house is widely considered one of the finest examples of its genre in America. Moreover, given Morse's occupation, the mansion was built with an eye not only to aesthetics but to then-modern conveniences, among them hot and cold running water, flush toilets, central heating, gas lights, a servant call-bell system, wall to wall carpeting, and a twenty-five-foot long stained glass skylight.
Morse was attentive not only to creating a European-influenced exterior to his home, but he also hired German-trained cabinetmaker and interior designer, Gustav Hertier, to fashion a lavish interior with a wealth of richly decorated details from gilded surfaces, intricate plasterwork, enormous mirrors, sumptuous fabrics, and carved furnishings combined to create lavish spaces of a palatial scale.
Morse died in 1893 and the following year his widow, Olive Ring Merrill Morse, sold the house virtually intact to J. R. Libby, a prominent dry goods merchant, who occupied the mansion with his family until 1929. By 1940 the house had fallen on hard times and was in danger of demolition or conversion before it was rescued and opened in 1941 to the public as a museum. Its benefactor was New York educator, Dr. William Holmes, who together with his sister Clara, an interior designer, discovered the house on a trip to Portland, purchased it, and began to reacquire the furnishings that had belonged to the home. The mansion was opened to the public in 1841 and named in honor of Queen Victoria. In 1943 Clara turned the property over to the Society of Maine Women of Achievement, a forerunner of today's non-profit society that manages the house. Victoria Mansion achieved National Historic Landmark status is 1971 and began a decades
-long process of restoration that included rebuilding the porches, front portico, carriage house, and brownstone tower, restoring the interior paint, plaster, carvings, and monumental stained glass window in the stairwell.
Today the Victoria Mansion operates as a not-for-profit enterprise which serves as a museum to the home's 19th century origins and also is widely used as a space for small music and dance chamber performances, such as gaslight concerts and the Portland Ballet's annual Victorian Nutcracker. But perhaps it is most beloved for hosting – pre-Covid - the Christmas designer showcase in which the best artisans and decorators each give their take on a theme and create a fantastical wonderland in one of the many rooms. One of the most thrilling of these in recent memory was the year of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" where each of the days' gifts became the visual conceit for a room. Visitors wandered from room to room awed by beplumed partridges or hunting for five golden rings artfully hidden in foliage and fabric, while another year, the visual images of The Nutcracker Suite dominated the design. The entire experience is a glut of fancy that
somehow seems to echo the season.
But even at other times of the year, the Victoria Mansion yields ample rewards for its visitors. Today Victoria Mansion contains over 90% of the original interiors including almost all of the original wall paintings by the Italian-born artist Giuseppe Guidicini, a master of the trompe l'oeil style, and masterpieces of Gustav Herter's furniture and carvings. Among the highlights of a visit is the breathtaking entry hall with its etched glass paneled doors and dramatic gaslights that leads to the Great Hall, where a steep carpeted staircase ascends three stories, topped on the second level by a huge stained glass window and rising theatrically to the stained glass skylight in the dome with its roundels depicting the four seasons. To either side through elaborately carved archways stand the Reception Room, the Parlor, and the Dining Room. Among the elaborate details in these spaces
created for grand entertaining, the eye catches the truly magnificent Herter desk in the Reception Room, the Templeton carpets (also found in Buckingham Palace), the trompe l'oeil ceiling in the Parlor, and the richly carved mahogany paneling throughout. One sometimes missed detail is the trophy carving on the Parlor wall which includes among the game a Maine lobster.
Ascending the staircase to the second floor gallery, one is treated to an array of lavishly furnished bedrooms and bathrooms. Morse built the house using all the latest in 19th century amenities including central heating and an elaborate plumbing system that piped hot and cold water throughout the house. A sign of his "modernity" is the double sink found in the master bath. Another of the house's most unique rooms is the Turkish Smoking Room, a tiny intricately decorated in the 19th century Orientalia style. This room was a place for the gentlemen to retire, close the doors and indulge in cigars, brandy, and other pleasures not considered suitable for the ladies.
Standing in the gallery and gazing down to the main entryway or up to the third level (servants' quarters) with the golden light pouring through the skylight in daytime or dancing off the crystal and gold chandeliers, one has a dizzying sense of past grandeur. And though in this year of the pandemic Christmas has not really come to the Victoria Mansion, one can close one's eyes and with very little difficulty imagine a string quartet playing in the Parlor, the gaslights ablaze throughout the house, the huge tree rising upward in the Great Hall, and little Clara and Fritz staring in wide-eyed wonder as the luminous SugarPlum Fairy trippingly glides down the stairs dispensing magic among the guests. Such is the power of the house to embody it history and its fantasy so strongly that they shine through any dark reality.
The Victoria Mansion, 109 Danforth St., Portland, is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 to the public except for the Museum Chop which has special member hours. A complete virtual tour may be found at: https://victoriamansion.org/about/inside-the-brownstone/