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New Insights Transform Carlyle

Rooms change function as museum evolves.

The past never stands still at the Carlyle House. It is always moving and evolving.

The house has recently undergone some dramatic changes. And more changes are on the way, creating a public stage for a merchant and quartermaster while maintaining a private domain for Carlyle and his three children.

The Northern Virginia Park Authority, which oversees the museum, wants the house to reflect current scholarship in the field of 18th-century decorative arts and social history. Modern science has also offered new insight into a hidden layer of paint and created a database that allows researchers to better understand how rooms were furnished.

The pale shade of Prussian blue that is found on moldings throughout the house will be replaced by a battleship gray. Although the color won't be as vibrant, it will act as a dramatic frame for the wallpaper that will be added to many of the walls at the house. Robert Leath and Betty Leviner, who conducted the furnishing plan for the house, have determined that wallpaper is a necessity.

"Given the extensive alternations to the Carlyle House during its 250-year history, an analysis of the walls for evidence of original wallpaper seems impossible," they wrote in the historic furnishings plan, "However, when comparing it with Gunston Hall and Belvoir, it seems equally impossible to envision the house without an extensive use of wallpaper."

The plan also suggested changing the function of several rooms — a task that has already been accomplished. A visit to the house will find old rooms with new functions, and a clearer distinction between the public space and private sphere.

<b>CURRENT SCHOLARSHIP</b> has given the modern world a fresh insight into the past, and members of the park authority want to reflect these changes. Among the new crop of historians to make major interpretive changes is Mark Wenger, who has published two scholarly articles that have had a dramatic influence in understanding life in 18th-century Virginia. These articles — "The Central Passage in Virginia" and "The Dining Room in Early Virginia" —have created new interpretations that the Carlyle House now hopes to incorporate.

Wenger's article on dining rooms indicates that "during the 1740s, Virginians began to experiment with new ways of arranging their houses — ways that emphasized the unity and coherence of these public spaces." The park authority wants to incorporate Wenger's scholarship into the interpretation of the house by creating a separation between the public space available to visitors and the private space that was used by the Carlyle family — a trend that follows the layout of Mount Airy and Gunston Hall.

Another recent finding that prompted changes at the Carlyle House is the discovery of previously unknown documents related to Belvoir, the house that was built by Col. William Fairfax. These new discoveries have provided insight into the family's tastes and consumer choices.

One of the most important recent events that has created a need to reinterpret the Carlyle House is the Gunston Hall Inventory Database. This searchable compilation includes more than 300 probate from Maryland and Virginia between 1740 and 1810. This database has revolutionized thinking about how rooms were used and furnished.

<B>THE PUBLIC SPACE</B> in Carlyle's home included the central passage, the parlor in the northwest corner of the house and the large dining room to the northeast. According to Leath and Leviner, these rooms offered the public face of the family.

"For John and Sarah Carlyle, the public spaces in their homes were the means not only for illustrating their wealth and claims to gentility as a family but also their status within the community," they wrote in the plan. "While these rooms make up a relatively small portion of the house's overall size, the passage, parlor and dining room were the most important areas for the public presentation of the Carlyle family to their visitors."

The central hallway, known as a passage, was an important feature of colonial homes that allowed upper-class homeowners to carefully screen visitors. A caller would have to wait in an interim space while the purpose of his or her visit was determined. The new furnishings plan calls for several maps to be added to the walls in the central passage.

"Certainly, a merchant like Carlyle would need a few maps," said Jim Bartlinski, curator of the Carlyle House. "We haven't decided about what kind of wallpaper we'll put in here yet."

One item that will be removed from the central passage is the mirror. According to the Gunston Hall Database, mirrors did not appear in passages. Mirrors from this era were more susceptible to being clouded by humidity — especially in the central passage, where air circulated through the house — and one French source suggested that Americans didn't like to keep fragile things in high-traffic areas because they might get broken.

The small parlor at the front of the house is dwarfed by the relatively giant dining room, a feature that reflects Scottish floor plans from the era. Parlors are traditionally a place where the lady of the house might have entertained friends and relatives.

"In this relatively diminutive space associated with the mistress of the household, Mrs. Carlyle could have received friends and family for tea as well as for conversation after dinner," wrote Leath and Leviner.

"We're trying to interpret the room as more feminine," said Bartlinski. "We think this room would probably have a flower arrangement in the fireplace during the summer — little touches like that are important to creating a parlor that would have been used by someone with the status of the Carlyles."

The famous dining room — where Gen. Edward Braddock met with colonial governors to plan his ill-fated journey into the Pennsylvania frontier — is the emotional center of the house. It's a grand stage where some of Alexandria's most important history transpired.

"The hall was becoming less important while the parlor and dining room began to assume separate functions," wrote Leath and Leviner. "Here lavish meals would be served to a large number of diners, plentiful bowls of punch could be consumed after dinner with male visitors — after the ladies had discreetly retired to the parlor for their tea — the Carlyles and their guests could play card games, and dances held with the furniture was pushed back against the wall."

<b>THE PRIVATE SPACE</b> of the house is where Carlyle would retire to conduct business, interact with his children or sleep. In the new layout, these spaces are on the south side of the first floor.

"In the period 1770-80, these rooms would have functioned as John Carlyle's personal quarters, away from the hustle and bustle of daily domestic life," wrote Leath and Leviner. "While invited guests and family members could have entered, it would have been only with John Carlyle's approval."

The bedchamber, which has been moved to the southwest corner, was Carlyle's private realm. The room's green wallpaper will be moved, probably to the parlor.

"This is where we have the highest concentration of Carlyle artifacts," said Bartlinski, noting that the room has Carlyle's 1760 mahogany bed, chest and dressing table. "Having Carlyle's actual bed here makes this room much more dramatic than if we had a reproduction."

The reinterpretation of the Carlyle House brings one new room: a study. Creating this room allows the park authority to display objects that demonstrate what life as a shipping merchant could have been like. Many of these objects have been in storage —brought out by the reconfiguration.

The most striking feature in the room is a Williamsburg desk that creates a still life for visitors —a window into Carlyle's business life. Documents, pens, paper, currency and a scale are waiting to tempt the imagination about what life was like in the 1770s. The room also features Moses, a mannequin of Carlyle's manservant.

<b>FUTURE PLANS FOR</B> the museum involve more than reinterpreting the house. The park authority is also planning to hold a reenactment of John Carlyle's funeral. The event will take place to coincide with Halloween, and a team of interpreters is researching the details about perceptions of death in the 18th century. Walt Henderson, who made a coffin for the anniversary of George Washington's funeral, has been commissioned to make a coffin for Carlyle.

"Death was such as large part of Carlyle's house," said Bartlinski, noting that two of his wives died in the house, as did most of his children. But finding out about the details of his death and funeral are a challenge. "We're trying to find out if we can learn who attended the funeral, who spoke, what they said — that kind of a thing."