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: The Josephine Koon Room from Connecticut


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute's new period room, the very generous gift of Mrs. C. C. Bovey in memory of Mrs. Martin B. Koon, was opened April 6, 1929. Although not complete in all details of furnishing, the paneling and some of the accessories warrant extended discussion in these pages.The new room dates from about 1740. It is adjacent to, and opens into, the Providence Room of about thirty years later. As the latter illustrates the high standards of living of an affluent colonist just prior to the Revolution, so the Josephine Koon Room exemplifies the transition between the primitive one-room hut of the Seventeenth Century and the comparative luxury of the end of the Eighteenth.Those familiar with New England as it is today will find the room curiously appropriate to its particular state, one which, except along the coast, has largely resisted the inroads of commerce. Although farm lands flank the Connecticut River, there are still great stretches of untouched woodland, and, with two or three exceptions, inland cities of any size are rare. Massachusetts to the north is much more thickly populated. One need not travel far from the Sound to find country wherein it is easy to imagine oneself back in the days of the early settlers.The paneling of the Koon Room came from a house in the village of Faxon, not far from New Haven. It covers only the fireplace wall, the rest of the room having been finished originally in plaster, the heavy oak beams of the house-frame, a base-board, two windows and a door probably supplying the rest of the wood trim. These have been constructed in the Koon Room to match the paneling.When the woodwork of the fireplace wall first reached the Institute, it was covered with so many coats of paint that the details of the carving were almost obliterated. It became necessary to remove these down to the first coat, which was probably applied soon after the house was built. This delicate operation was done with complete success, leaving the woodwork a soft green and bringing out the simple decoration in its original condition.EARLY HOUSE PLANSBefore discussing, the furniture and woodwork further, it may be well to consider briefly the history and general plan of early Connecticut houses. Inasmuch as very few houses built before 1700 are still standing in the state, we have to depend entirely on record for our knowledge of most early structures. There is evidence that the Plymouth colony in 1633 fitted out a "great new bark" in which were stowed away the complete frame and other woodwork for a house. The ship sailed around the Cape and along the coast, dropping anchor in the Connecticut River just below the mouth of the Farmington River, and there the house was quickly "clapt up."But probably log cabins were common before the advent of the framed house. In writing of the first settlers, Atwater, in his "History of New Haven Colony," says, "For the winter they usually built huts, as they called them, similar to the modern log cabins in the forests of the West, though in some instances, if not in most, they were roofed, after the English fashion, with thatch." But the frame house was soon common. According to old records, George Fenwick has a "faire house" at Saybrook as early as 1641.Probably the first houses were of the one-room plan, a story and a half or two stories high, with the chimney stack at one end, showing on the outside of the house for its entire height. When the family and its needs became larger additions were usually made, sometimes by building a lean-to and sometimes by actually doubling or tripling the size of the house and utilizing the chimney-stack for fireplaces on two sides. The house which contained the Koon Room, dating as it does a century after the first settlements, was originally of the two-room central-chimney type, to which later additions in the form of a lean-to or an extra room were made.There are some who feel that early American architecture is negligible because wood, the material most widely used, is impermanent. But it must be remembered that these colonists were largely English and that the Englishman is staunch in his conservatism and adherence to tradition. If they used wood it was not, as Fiske Kimball has pointed out, due so much to the necessity of using an inferior material because of local conditions, but to the perpetuation of English custom where there was no need for abandoning it. Most early English houses were made preferably of wood even when stone was plentiful, and it was only after the oak forests had been drained to build the navy, and the Great Fire of 1666 had created a profound distrust of wood construction, that stone began to supplant it.There was one "local condition" however, which swung the balance in favor of wood in New England—the lack of an adequate line supply for mortar. Rhode Island was supplied with ample deposits near Providence, but Connecticut had to resort chiefly to the inferior lime from shells. In Massachusetts, Johnson wrote that the fort on Castle Island had to be rebuilt in 1644 "by reason the country affords no lime, but what is burnt of Oyster-shells."But if the colonists did not use stone extensively, it must not be supposed that their houses were in any way comparable to the modern frame residence, slapped up with clapboards on a frame of two-by-fours. As J. Frederick Kelley says in his "Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut," the "innate sense of sheer structural value . . . communicates to every observer, even the most casual, the bluff and rugged strength of our old houses; and he who knows these ancient dwellings more intimately, perhaps through having been fortunate enough to live in one of them, is keenly and sensitively responsive to the security, the abundance of strength, which they embody. Their mighty frames of oaken timbers—timbers which measure sixteen and even eighteen inches—have stood unshaken for two centuries or more . . . He who warms as he ought to the spirit of these old houses must revel in the well-nigh barbaric massiveness of their framing."The average small English house of the period was an unpretentious affair. There were few rooms and the first floor was usually level with the ground, because in most cases there was no cellar. The hearth, which was depended upon for heat and for cooking purposes, was the center of domestic life and was usually of ample proportions. The ceilings were low for greater coziness and intimacy and for warmth in cold weather.Nearly all of these features were reflected in the early houses of the colonies. Apparently there is no particular reason for the massive size of the chimney stacks other than tradition, for in Connecticut they are frequently out of all proportion to the fireplace openings.THE PANELINGThe earliest interior wall finish in Connecticut was plain pine wainscoting. Later the wainscot gave way to plaster, although the use of wood, sometimes plain or slightly molded and sometimes paneled, persisted until a late date. The Josephine Koon Room is an example of the transition between plaster-and-wood and all wood paneling.As will be seen from the illustration on the cover, the woodwork is very beautifully and delicately proportioned. The fireplace itself is framed with a wide molding in rather strong projection and is flanked at either side with fluted pilasters which run to the cornice. The pilaster rests on an almost square plinth, and is surmounted by a capital and frieze-block, the latter ornamented with a shallow rosette, sometimes locally called a "sunburst" or a "sunflower." Between the pilasters and above the fireplace are three well-proportioned panels. One somewhat broader double panel is found at the left and two at the right. The door, at the extreme right of the wall, which leads to the second story, is not shown in the illustration but is divided into four small rectangular panels.The more one studies this unpretentious bit of decoration with its gentle symmetry and the nice perfection of its craftsmanship, the more endearing it becomes. How beautifully it bodies forth the quiet dignity of the early colonist's life! His house was not of manorial proportions and doubtless his board was seldom festive. But what innate good taste he had! What his purse afforded was of the best, materials perfect and workmanship impeccable. We must take our hats off to this unknown pioneer, whose fine background and sound traditions gave him strength to conquer his primitive surroundings when it would have been easier to succumb to them.FURNITURE AND ACCESSORIESAlthough not properly a piece of furniture, the corner cupboard in the Josephine Koon Room may be discussed under this heading, for it comes from another house, and is not built in, as is usually the case. The position common to corner cupboards in houses of the central chimney type was, as here, the right hand farther corner as one stands with one's back to the fireplace. The function of the corner cupboard was to keep and display the choicest pieces of the family china. It is variously referred to in old records as the "bowfat," "boffet," or "buffit," all corruptions of the word "buffet."The Koon Room has been furnished with a chest of so-called "Connecticut" type, an armchair, three side chairs, a child's chair, a mirror of the Queen Anne type, a small "courting glass," a bird-cage clock, a burl bowl, andirons, a swivel toasting rack, three pictures, a pipe box, vessels of various sorts in use at the period and three types of lighting devices.The chest illustrated on page 88, is of quartered oak embellished on the front with three arched panels carved with serrated ornament. Each panel has a round boss and the three are divided by two ebonized spindles. The ends show plain panels, and extensions of the corner stiles serve as legs.Placed on the chest is a burl bowl, a gray stoneware jar of the period and a pewter jar of the period and a pewter jug of the type known as a "tappit hen." Above, on the wall, is a stump-work and embroidered picture showing a cavalier and his lady in a garden.On the north wall, between the two windows will be found a lacquered mirror of the Queen Anne style with a high crest, gilded with sprays of foliage on a ground of dark green. To the center panel over the fireplace is affixed the courting glass. These little mirrors were carried by ladies in small boxes when they went calling. Although doubtless inspection of the countenance was made less publicly than it is today, precedent for the modern small mirror does not seem wanting in our early history.Among the three types of lighting devices, the most interesting is the rush light stand, to be found on the table between the windows. It is made of wrought iron and consists of a pair of tongs supported by a shank terminating in a three-pronged base. The rush light is clamped in the middle by the tongs and could be "burned at both ends" if additional light were required. The old adage, obscure in relation to the type of candle with which we are familiar, makes sense at last.To the pilasters on the fireplace wall is affixed a pair of slot lamps, sometimes called "cruisies" or "betties," a device of the most primitive yet traditional kind and a candlebar of iron with a pricket at the base for the candle.The pipebox of mahogany and oak, illustrated on this page, is of the type common in early colonial houses. This article originated from the need of protecting the long, slender-stemmed clay pipes then in common use. There is a drawer for tobacco at the bottom.The pair of side chairs with rush seats and Spanish feet were purchased by the Society of 1914, but will be re-purchased by Mrs. Bovey for inclusion in the Josephine Koon Room. A third side chair purchased with this room in mind is of a type derived from the William and Mary style. It has a high back with leather seat and leather panel in back. The front legs and stretcher are finely turned.A banister back arm chair with scrolled top will be found against the south wall. It is a combination of woods: oak, pine and maple, and the original rush seat has been replaced with rope. The uprights are turned, those at the back surmounted by ball-shaped finials. A child's chair with rush seat is placed beside the fireplace. It was probably higher when originally built, the legs having work down.There remain only the bird-cage clock on the East wall and two framed glass prints, portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte. These were made by pasting a print face downward on a piece of glass, scraping away the major portion of the paper, and then staining the remainder so that the color came through to the front. The making of glass prints was a favorite pastime in the XVIII century and has recently been revived.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Paneling of fireplace wall, about 1740. The Josephine Koon Room. Gift of Mrs. C. C. Bovey
  2. The Josephine Koon Room, showing corner cupboard, paneled chest and banister back chair
  3. Paneled chest of the so-called Connecticut type. The Josephine Koon Room
  4. Banister back arm chair. The Josephine Koon Room
  5. Pipe box. The Josephine Koon Room
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Source: "The Josephine Koon Room From Connecticut," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 18, no. 18 (May, 1929): 86-91.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009