Portland's Victoria Mansion: Edifice Complex

The "Smoking Room" at Victoria Mansion
Victoria Mansion (or as it’s also known, the Morse-Libby House for the names of its successive inhabitants) is a little gem in the heart of the arts district of Portland, Maine. It was built between 1858 and 1860 by a wealthy Southern hotel proprietor in the Horatio Alger mold, one Ruggles Sylvester Morse. He and his wife Olive, both natives of Maine, made their fortune in New Orleans but wished to summer back in the cooler Northern climate (as anyone who’s spent summertime in New Orleans could surely understand). The Victoria Mansion complex, consisting of the main building with its ornate living quarters and a simpler adjacent carriage house (now the ticket kiosk and museum store), is renowned for both its architectural significance as a “High Victorian” villa in the Italianate style (the work of famed New Haven architect Henry Austin) as well as for its amazing interior decoration (by Gustave Herter of the equally famous New York City firm, Herter Brothers).

After Ruggles died, Olive sold the property, along with most of its furnishings and decorations , to locale magnate J. R. Libby, whose family occupied it into the 1920’s. Threatened with demolition in the late 1930’s, it was rescued by a former teacher, William H. Holmes in 1940, then made into a museum a year later. He dedicated it to the British Queen, hence the current name. Since then it has operated as a non-profit entity open to the public, having been designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970. It’s open seasonally (May to October) for guided tours, as well as at the holidays, suitably decorated, each December. Special admission rates are offered for families, children, seniors and college students, any of whom would find many things about the museum to intrigue them.

What makes this property unique is that, unlike any other historical residence in the nation, its contents are ninety percent original to the house, dating back to the first family residents. What this means is that one can get an atypically authentic window into everyday life of the pre-Civil-War period, at least for the wealthier citizenry of the era. Not only is it considered the finest existing Italian style villa in this country, it’s also a virtual time warp. The decorative arts, from the wall paintings by Giuseppe Guidicini (a theatrical scene painter), to the two identical sets of china (one red, one green) actually used by the family, to the over-the-top (but somehow still tasteful, even if it doesn‘t reflect prevailing taste today) “smoking room” (see the above photos of the room before and after restoration), it’s a total immersion in another era. And then there are all those stained glass windows, the original rugs, and…well, you get the idea. “Original” is the operative word.

The mansion is a logical stop on a city walking tour (just a few blocks, for example, from other museums like the Portland Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, to name but a few). Because of the extraordinary state of preservation of both the edifice itself and its contents, affording an unmatched view into another time, this is a must for tourists of all ages. Even Victoria herself would have been amused.

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