Mar 29, 2014
06:04 AM
History

Litchfield Caught Colonial Revival Fever Like No Other Town; Exhibit Explores Results

Litchfield Caught Colonial Revival Fever Like No Other Town; Exhibit Explores Results

An elaborate gown of the Colonial Revival period in front of a tableau from that period.

It has been only 37 years since the United States celebrated its Bicentennial. Those old enough to remember the hoopla surrounding that anniversary will recall the re-enactments, the fireworks that blazed in summer skies, the historic displays and patriotic speeches.

Some gestures were purely symbolic—President Gerald Ford hanging a third lantern in the steeple of Boston’s Old North Church to herald America’s third century—while others more spontaneously recalled the revolutionary spirit—such as the group of protesters who re-enacted the Boston Tea Party of 1775 by throwing packages labeled “Gulf Oil” and “Exxon” into Boston Harbor in opposition to corporate power.

A wave of patriotism and nostalgia wrapped the nation in red, white and blue. The tri-state region, which had been fervent—if not entirely united—in its opposition to British power in the 18th century, recalled its participation in the war with colorful pageantry. And then it was over—1976 came and went, and with its departure all returned to the late 20th-century lives they had always known.

The story was far more complex—and lasting—in 1876, however, when the nation celebrated its 100th birthday. That event, combined with profound demographic changes in America, launched a major cultural phenomenon called the Colonial Revival. While national in scope, the Revival was perhaps most fully realized in the North in Litchfield, a town that literally transformed itself to epitomize an idealized Colonial past.

In the “Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture,” Michael Kammen wrote, “[In] 1913, Litchfield, Connecticut, became the first town in America to remodel its historic architecture and landscape comprehensively in the colonial style. By 1930, with the Congregational Church reconstructed and Tapping Reeve’s old law school (the very first in America) restored, Litchfield had quietly become New England’s Williamsburg—sans admission fees, sans hostesses in costume, sans p.r.”

Now the Litchfield Historical Society will explore this transformation in its new exhibit, “The Lure of the Litchfield Hills,” slated to open April 12. The exhibit will look at what was behind the Colonial Revival movement, how the residents of Litchfield embraced their ancestral past, and how the community came to look the way it does today. Visitors will be invited to join in exploring this social movement that touched all aspects of American life from architecture and landscaping, to fashion, home decoration and beyond.

Jessica Jenkins, historical society curator, said the Colonial Revival is a “fascinating topic” that has been on the society’s exhibition schedule for some time. “Here at the society, we want to get into the meat of it and explore the topic. And 2014 is timely because a majority of it was happening a hundred years ago.

The exhibit will feature items from the museum’s collections, ranging from documents and photographs to furnishings, housewares and clothing. But perhaps the biggest part of the exhibit lies outside the society’s front door. The streetscape, dominated by the white clapboard Congregational meetinghouse, the stone clock tower of the Court House and the immaculate homes with white paint and black shutters, has come to embody the quintessential New England town. It is easy to imagine colonial ancestors living in such a beautiful, pastoral setting. What is harder to imagine is that Litchfield’s picturesque beauty was not a product of the colonial era, but of the late 19th- and early-20th-century Colonial Revival.

Indeed, the important colonial town that once was Litchfield would be virtually unrecognizable to modern visitors, according to Ms. Jenkins. “During the Revolution this area was vastly different,” she observed. “Right now people consider this the ideal colonial town, but it is not—it is a Colonial Revival town. This area that is now the village was not densely populated. There was a comparatively small population in the center with the larger population on out on the edges, on farms. The green looked nothing like today—it was a trash heap, a marshy area, a functional area—not a beautiful space to have lunch.”

See the full story online at The Litchfield County Times.

 

Litchfield Caught Colonial Revival Fever Like No Other Town; Exhibit Explores Results

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