Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Conserving the Victorian Era at Acorn Hall

Conserving the Victorian Era at Acorn Hall
Written by NJ Historian

Stepping into Acorn Hall in Morristown is comparable to stepping into a time capsule. As you walk through the front doors, you are immediately transported into a time of considerable wealth, opulence, and high style. This stately Italian Villa, named for a three-century year old oak tree that once stood on the property, represents one of the best preserved mid-Victorian homes in New Jersey. Elegantly decorated and furnished primarily with pieces from the two families who resided there over the course of one hundred years, Acorn Hall presents challenges to conservators who work carefully to retain and prevent further deterioration to the original carpeting, wall coverings, and paint.


Acorn Hall was built in 1853 but did not look like the Victorian structure we see today. The home was built by a young physician, Dr. John P. Schermerhorn for his wife Louisa and his first child. It was originally built as a square, Georgian style farmhouse with four rooms on each floor, separated by a center hall. Not much is known about Dr. Schermerhorn, but he was active with the Second Episcopal Church in Morristown in 1852, serving as an elected member.

Following the death of Louisa after giving birth to the couple’s second child in 1854, Dr. Schermerhorn put his eight acre estate and its contents up for sale, including its furnishings and draperies. It was purchased in 1857 by Augustus Crane of New York. Augustus, his wife Mary, and their four children moved in.

In 1860, Augustus Crane expanded and remodeled his residence in the Italianate Villa style. A two-story wing was constructed on the eastern side of the building, which would add a large formal dining room on the first floor and a master bedroom and additional bedroom on the second floor. An octagonal tower was added to the front of the home. 

The original master bedroom, with original acorn-themed wallpaper, dating to 1860.
Acorn Hall exhibits characteristics that are typical of the Italianate style, as shown in its varied roof levels, exaggerated roof overhang, brackets under the eaves, and its unique octagonal tower. The octagonal tower is far less common than a square tower, which adorned many homes built or remodeled in this style. Acorn Hall'’s porches also have a good deal of gingerbread decoration, which adds to the Italianate character of the home. 

The first floor of Acorn Hall features extensive Trompe l'oeil effects in the front parlor and center hall. The center hall's Trompe l'oeil effects make it appear as if the walls are covered in marble. In the front parlor, the ceiling employs the use of Trompe l'oeil to create a sense of additional layers of moldings. In the formal parlor, a printed velvet rug is identical to the one exhibited in 1851-1852 at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. The marble for the rose marble fireplace installed in the dining room was imported from Italy by Augustus Crane. The Crane family spared no expense in demonstrating their wealth to guests. The Crane family always employed two servants - a chauffeur and cook. The servants resided on the third floor of the house, accessible by a back stairwell which ran all the way to the basement. A buzzer system was installed in the home to call the servants and the system still works today in select rooms.

The rear parlor looking through into the front parlor.
In 1935, the Hone family - descendants of the Cranes - moved in and added a central heating system and electricity to the home. A pantry was also added off of the dining room, in addition to moving the kitchen from the basement to the first floor. Mr. Hone, who suffered from a heart condition and found it difficult to climb the stairs each day, installed an elevator in 1935. The elevator, non-operational today due to safety codes, still exists. Later, a room was added off the rear parlor and served as an art gallery for the family's extensive art collection. Today, it has been converted into the gift shop.

After being passed down through four generations, the house was gifted to the Morris County Historical Society in 1971 by Mary Crane Hone. Mary Crane Hone's great-great grandparents were Augustus and and Mary Crane. An only child who never married, Mary inherited Acorn Hall from her mother. She became devoted to the house and was determined to save it because “this house is a treasure and must be preserved.” Mary was born November 27, 1904 in Louisville, Kentucky. In the early 1930s, she starred in Isben's "Gift from the Sea" on Broadway. Within a few years, she retired from the stage and began working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and later the United World Federalists. Her parents acquired Acorn Hall in 1935.

Mary Crane Hone
Mary was unafraid to express her opinions. Outraged by plans to build Route 287 through Morristown, she wrote letters of protest. But her involvement did not end there. In a dramatic move, when construction began on the Morristown section, Mary and her friend Elizabeth Cooke went to the site and sat on a steamroller to demonstrate their opposition to this highway in an area steeped in Revolutionary War history. In a letter written in 1965, Mary summed up her sentiments about the need for historic preservation across the area.  She not only advocated, but then practiced her preaching by donating the property to the Morris County Historical Society.
It’s high time for all of us interested in historic preservation to face up to the fact that the power and the purse are now in the hands of government – at whatever level – and we’ll just have to sully our dainty hands with the political approach if we seriously intend to save anything in this threatened Greater Metropolitan Area..”

Acorn Hall was placed on the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places in 1972 and the National Register in 1973. Today, visitors will find well-manicured lawns, a gazebo, and gardens maintained by the Home Garden Club of Morristown, surrounding the property. The plantings recreate gardens that represent the period of 1853 to 1888, giving a sense of what gardens at Acorn Hall may have been like. A carriage shed toward the rear of the parking lot is used for programming and special events. 

Visitors to Acorn Hall today marvel at the Victorian architecture, the authenticity of the interior, and the true sense of history one leaves with. Mary Crane Hone was a true preservationist, recognizing the potential and value of such historic sites in an ever-changing world. Without her gracious donation, Acorn Hall's fate may have been the same as many other Gilded Age mansions along Millionaire's Row which were torn down to construct office complexes, hotels, and other urban-renewal projects.


Additional photos of my trip to the Acorn Hall on Pinterest

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