Why The Colonial Style Was Revived, At The Litchfield Historical Society
By Lisa Green
Litchfield may look like the archetype of the perfect Colonial village — white clapboard Congregational meetinghouse, big white homes with black shutters, a pastoral town green. Yet there’s more to it than meets the eye, because the picturesque place you see now evolved from a Victorian setting. If you’re thinking the historical periods are out of order, you’re correct. Litchfield’s postcard-perfect beauty was not actually a product of the Colonial Era, but a late 19th and early 20th century movement known as Colonial Revival.
“The Lure of the Litchfield Hills,” the current exhibit at the Litchfield Historical Society, explores the social movement that gradually turned the architecture, fashions and sentimental look-backs to all things Colonial. As the nation was celebrating its centennial in 1876, as the economy struggled with post-Civil War effects and frequently unwelcomed immigrants were entering the county’s industries, it was comforting and patriotic to look past the problems and revel in the promises of early America.
An emphasis on ancestry also instilled and validated the sense of being an American and a resident’s deep roots in the country. After all, there were people in Litchfield who still retained memories of the Revolutionary War.
The exhibit includes objects such as furnishings, housewares, clothing, photos and documents from the Society’s collections that bear witness to the idealization of its Colonial past. Spinning wheels again appeared in homes — now as decorative pieces. Houses along North and South Streets were made over in the Colonial style (white became the house color de rigeuer), and every home had photographs with ennobling Colonial scenes. In private homes, “theatrics” presented tableaus of citizens in Colonial dress. One such mural shows a group of Colonial revivalist “actors” posing, albeit a bit self consciously. It’s a scene that one imagines may have been set up by the Colonial Dames of America (yes, an active group in those days).
“Sometimes people would just pull an old piece of clothing that belonged to an ancestor, right out of the attic,” says Jessica Jenkins, curator of the collections. Those original (and then reused) coats and dresses — as well as Colonial Revival knockoffs — are on display, too.
Why this exhibit, now?
“People often ask why the town looks the way it does,” Jenkins says. It was the Colonial Revival Movement that gave birth to the Litchfield Historical Society, which began by collecting original Colonial artifacts and continued to evolve into the collection of items now on display.
Beginning this weekend, the Litchfield Historical Society’s annual series of walking tours begins, and Jenkins will lead a special curator’s tour of Colonial Revival Litchfield on Saturday, June 21. How did homes morph from Victorian architecture to the boxier style of an earlier time? And how did Litchfield achieve its strikingly picturesque setting? The program is free for members and $10 for non-members; registration is required.
“The Lure of the Litchfield Hills” will run through the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Litchfield History Museum
7 South Street, Litchfield, CT
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