Wallace Nutting and the Webb House

by Charles T. Lyle

“Tea in Yorktown Parlor,” ca. 1916.  W-D-S Collection.   The mural on the left portrays the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781

“Tea in Yorktown Parlor,” ca. 1916. W-D-S Collection.
The mural on the left portrays the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781

Nutting was central figure in the Colonial Revival movement of the 1920’s

Portrait of Nutting

Courtesy of Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT

Wallace Nutting (1861-1941) was a central figure in the Colonial Revival movement whose work both fascinates and fuels controversy in the museum field.  A former Congregational minister, he changed careers to become an artist-photographer, house restorer, collector of antiques, antiquarian, noted author, and furniture manufacturer.  His influence was enormous, similar to that of Martha Stewart today, in promoting the then emerging interest in gracious Colonial homes tastefully decorated with American antiques.

Wallace Nutting resigned his ministry in 1904 at age forty-three to become a professional “art” photographer.  His first pictures were mostly of birch trees and apple blossoms taken in New England.  He used platinum prints that were hand-colored with water colors.  As his business expanded, girl colorists were employed to work in his various studios.  They did each print individually based upon his strict instructions, one color at a time, until finished.  His interior views, which he called “personals” or “colonials,” were staged in early houses, using antique furniture as props and employing models dressed in colonial clothing.  Typically, one or more braided rugs covered the floor, usually made by his wife, who offered them for sale.  Mrs. Nutting also appears frequently as a model in these scenes.  Nutting’s mass-produced photographic views of idyllic streams, rugged coastlines, historic houses, and pretty maidens in tasteful colonial interiors appealed to a broad middle-class audience.  The hand-tinted images were signed, matted, and framed and could be had for as little as $1.50 in 1915.  Nutting claimed in 1936 to have produced ten million individual views.

Nutting purchases the Webb house in 1916

Historical advertisement for Nutting's "Chain of Colonial Houses"

Advertisement for Nutting’s “Chain of Colonial Houses.”

Nutting purchased the Joseph Webb House on February 9, 1916, and began making changes under the supervision of architect Henry Charles Dean.  It was envisioned as one of the links in his “Chain of Colonial Picture Houses” — all important historic sites located in New England that were part of his business plan to promote a nostalgic appreciation of “Old America.”  From the beginning, he intended to use the house primarily as a backdrop for his “Colonial” pictures to be sold in stores around the country.

“The Fateful Hour” (the Center Hall), 1916-19.  W-D-S Collection. The hallway was decorated by Nutting in 1916 with painted murals depicting romanticized views of European castles.  Also note the painted checkerboard pattern on the floor.  The murals were painted over in the 1920s and cannot be restored.

“The Fateful Hour” (the Center Hall), 1916-19. W-D-S Collection.
The hallway was decorated by Nutting in 1916 with painted murals depicting romanticized views of European castles. Also note the painted checkerboard pattern on the floor. The murals were painted over in the 1920s and cannot be restored.

The most prominent feature of the “restoration” was the introduction of historic murals in the hallway and two front parlors painted by three Hartford artists.  The southeast (“Yorktown”) parlor murals depict the famous council of war between George Washington and the comte de Rochambeau, that took place in the house in May 1781.  Also portrayed is the British surrender at Yorktown. The northwest parlor murals capture noteworthy historic houses in imaginary landscapes, including several of the other “links” in his chain of houses. Other rooms in the Webb House were also used as stage sets for his photographs, including the kitchen and the southwest parlor (now the museum shop).

Nutting opened the Webb house to the public on July 4, 1916, with a 25 cent admission charge. During his first two years of operation there were over 2,000 visitors. But America’s entry to World War I and the rationing of gas seriously affected automobile touring. Nutting had no choice but to close the house and sell it to the Connecticut Society of Colonial Dames.

northeastparlor

View of the northwest parlor, 1916-19, W-D-S Collection. The painting to the left of the door is of Broadhearth, the Iron Works House, in Saugus, Massachusetts, which served as Nutting’s main studio. To the right is another of his picture houses, the Hazen Garrison House in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

news article

Article in The Hartford Daily Courant, Monday, July 3, 1916. Nutting is sitting in a Windsor chair on the front porch of the Webb House the day before opening the house to the public.

House sold to Connecticut Society of Colonial Dames in 1919

When the Connecticut Dames acquired the Webb House in 1919, they intended to operate it as a house museum restored to its original 1751-1752 appearance. They enlisted the help of several nationally known preservationists—William Sumner Appleton, the founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities; Norman Morrison Isham, a well known architect, architectural historian, and author of Early Connecticut Houses; and J. Frederick Kelly, architect, architectural historian, and author of Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut.

The architectural advisors recommended that the Rhode Island mantel in the Yorktown parlor installed by Wallace Nutting be removed and that more appropriate molding be introduced based on photos from the pre-Nutting period.

Mural depicting the council of war between Washington and the comte de Rochembeau. Note the elaborate overmantel that was added by Nutting in 1916 and removed by the Colonial Dames as part of their restoration, c. 1920. It is now at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Mural depicting the council of war between Washington and the comte de Rochembeau. Note the elaborate overmantel that was added by Nutting in 1916 and removed by the Colonial Dames as part of their restoration, c. 1920. It is now at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

The Nutting era wall murals also drew sharp criticism as being “modern and in bad taste” and “out of place.” They were covered over by reproduction wallpapers. In November 1923 the Webb House Committee reported that “The castles on the walls of the hall have been obliterated by a lovely paper. It might amuse some if it were known that the general public regretted so much the loss of those castles that one panel of the new paper was torn off to demonstrate their beauty….” The solution was to eventually paint directly over the hallway murals.

Interpreting Wallace Nutting and the Colonial Revival Period

the Yorktown Parlor

The Southeast (“Yorktown”) parlor showing the mural of the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.

It was not until 1996 that the Dames were willing to acknowledge Wallace Nutting and expand the interpretive focus of the Webb House to include the Colonial Revival period of the 1920s. The wallpaper was removed in the “Yorktown” parlor to uncover the Nutting wall murals for the first time since the 1920s. Recognizing that the Colonial Revival period and Wallace Nutting are strengths in the interpretation of the Webb House, the current executive director got the approval of the Board in 2007 to also uncover the murals in the northeast parlor and to reinterpret the room to the Colonial Revival period. Later reproduction wallpaper that was not historically accurate and in bad shape was removed and the murals were found to be in excellent condition. An exhibit was also installed in the center hall to help visitors better understand Wallace Nutting’s influence at the Webb House and in shaping American taste in general. It features original Nutting photographs of the Webb House.