Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lessons in Time

I spent the afternoon with a Civil War legacy and a young buck.

A nerdy friend had reminded me that this was the weekend that so many historical attractions were open free of charge, a fact I promptly forgot until mid-afternoon.

Luckily, two of the destinations I wanted to visit were within spitting distance.

Arriving at the White House of the Confederacy, I lucked into a house tour starting momentarily with a guide who couldn't have been more perfect or appropriate.

The great-grandson of Confederate second lieutenant Moncure, he spoke with a southern accent so thick the crowd of two dozen or so had to strain to understand the words.

"War" came out as "woh-a," for instance.

But he was a font of information as he led us room to room through the house occupied by Jefferson Davis and his family during the war, making sure we understood the difference between the gentlemen's parlor (whiskey, smoking, political talk) and the withdrawing room (music, cultured talk).

Leading us through the grand dining room, he said it was wife Varina's favorite room with its 14' ceilings.

Scratched on the mirror over the fireplace, some young belle had used her diamond ring to scratch "John is my boy" into the surface.

The library, he said, was referred to by the family as the "snuggery" for its small size and warmth.

Perhaps most interestingly, our guide made it clear that the history books had left out a lot of pertinent information about Mr. Davis.

About what a fine Secretary of War he was under President Franklin Pierce, how he was assigned to take Black Hawk to prison, the success he had as a colonel during the Mexican-American War.

I'm not sure he convinced anyone, but he tried his best. He was inordinately proud of both Davis and the house and wanted to share his beliefs.

From there I went down the street to the Valentine for a tour of the Wickham House and this time I had a 15-minute wait.

The woman suggested I pass time at the Valentine studio, instructing me to, "Go under the flowering arch and through the breezeway."

How could there not be something wonderful at the end of that path?

Despite having been in the Valentine garden and eating at Sally Bell's there, I'd never been in the studio, a treasure trove of sculptor Edward Valentine's works.

It reminded me very much of a sculpture studio I'd seen in Italy except for all the familiar faces of Confederates.

Since I had such a short time to check it out, I resolved to go back for lunch at Sally Bell's and a longer visit with the studio.

Our tour guide for the Wickham House appeared to be about a third the age of the last one and with no discernible accent.

I'd last been in the 1812 Wickham House back in the late '80s or early '90s and they were in the process of restoring the house, so seeing so much of the restoration was pretty satisfying for me.

It was obvious that Wickham, a mere lawyer of modest means, had forged quite an economic alliance by marrying a woman who came from a family with big bucks.

Let's just say the Wickhams had a walk-in closet with a window in it.

Forget that houses back then usually had no closets, this one was as big as my kitchen (admittedly small) and had a view.

Naturally, we weren't allowed on the magnificent elliptical stairway (had to use the servants' staircase, narrow and steep), but we did see the impressive Gilbert Sullivan portrait of wife Elizabeth, the poor woman who bore him 17 children.

Even non-art geeks know artist Gilbert Sullivan; he's the one who painted the iconic portrait of George Washington so for him to have painted Elizabeth speaks to her family connections.

1%, that's all I'm saying.

Coming from a house circa the 1860s to a house from 1812 meant that even a modern day visitor was struck by the differences. No gas chandeliers in the Wickham house.

And the similarities.

Rich and powerful people have never lived like you and me.

For crying out loud, they used diamonds to leave postbellum graffiti.

Fiddle-dee-dee, indeed.

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