We have very few photos – or any sources, really – to help us see the interior of our house museum, the ca. 1815 Beall-Dawson House, as it was “in the past.” (I put that in quotes because 200 years covers a lot of different “pasts.”) There are a few estate inventories and other written clues about the 19th century furnishings, but it isn’t until the early 20th century that the sources pick up steam, thanks to the memories of Dawson and Davis family members who lived here, and to the Historic American Buildings Survey photographer John O. Bostrup.
Bostrup visited “Beallmont” – as it was occasionally known - in 1936. At the time, the House was home to several members of the Dawson family (including Margaret Dawson, 1876-1937, who lived here all her life). Bostrup’s photos for the HABS project include two of the earliest interior shots: views of the front hall staircase and the parlor mantel. Below, a comparison of the 1936 parlor photo to one taken this morning (click to view the image in more detail):
Some things are the same in both photos, notably the original plaster moldings along the ceiling, the Adam-style mantel decorations, and the charcoal portrait of Amelia Somervell Dawson (which, granted, we’ve hung rather lower on the wall). The clock and candlesticks shown in the modern picture are similar pieces, but not exact matches, and we’ve set a copy of the small photo (at left in the 1936 image) of the Dawson daughters on the mantel as well.
When the Davis family moved into the House in 1946 they made many repairs, including some work on the fireplaces. A comparison of the two photos shows the Davises’ black marble hearth and facing on the right, replacing the brick and plaster of the older picture. The mantel ornamentation, however, is original, in the then-popular Adam style. The decorative panels – plaster on wood – were most likely purchased by Upton Beall in Washington D.C. Thanks to the layers of protective paint applied over the years, and to Mrs. Davis’ painstaking care in cleaning the delicate plaster in the 1940s, our mantel is in excellent condition today. (I’ll probably do a whole post on the mantel one of these days, but here’s our classical Diana, posed demurely in the center.)
And then there’s Amelia. The portrait of Mrs. Dawson was donated by her great-granddaughter Helen Dawson Reichenbach, in memory of her father Harry A. Dawson. Unsigned and undated, it is most likely a copy of a painted miniature (in which, no offense to this artist, the subject looks a little less pained.) Amelia died in 1896; her husband John outlived her by 30 years. Several Dawson family stories tell us that this portrait hung here in the parlor, where John – an invalid for many years – could see her; as the HABS photos shows, the family left it there after John’s 1926 death. It’s a little sentimental of me, but I’m glad we were able to hang the portrait here again, where it belongs.