Classica Americana : A collection of essays

Phyfe Unveiled: Two Bedrooms with Original Furniture Recently Installed at Millford

Millford, one of the great Greek revival houses in America, is renowned for its spectacular giant order colonnade, pure geometric massing, and look of stately classical repose on the sand hills of Clarendon County, South Carolina. It is also justifiably famous for its superbly proportioned and beautifully furnished ground floor interiors. Over the years, Millford has welcomed thousands of visitors to tour its ground floor rooms — the commodious central hall, magnificent double parlor, apse-ended dining room, and handsome, bookcase-lined library. After completing this ground floor circuit they are ushered into the staircase rotunda at the rear of the hall where they can marvel at the spectacular spiral staircase, lit from above by an oculus painted in jewel-like colors and looking every bit like a miniature rose window from a Gothic cathedral. The staircase beckons, but unfortunately this is where the tour ends. At least that was until September 13, on the occasion of our fourth annual Music at Millford benefit concert when two newly installed bedrooms were officially opened for special tours of the second floor.

Over the past several years Classical American Homes Preservation Trust has been fortunate to acquire through gift, purchase, and trade six additional pieces of Duncan Phyfe & Son furniture from Millford – all of it bedroom furniture – that allow us to present these bedrooms furnished with the same mix of authenticity and unmistakable Dick Jenrette/Bill Thompson style that has made the ground floor rooms so strikingly beautiful and popular with the public. Having the chance to tour the second floor we hope will also help visitors imagine how the house was originally designed and functioned for its builders, John Laurence and Susan Hampton Manning. Ascending to the top of the stairs one enters a wide, elegant hall with classically ornamented door architraves that is only slightly narrower than the one on the ground floor (compare ground and second floor plans). Flanking the hall are four bedrooms that occupy the four corners of the house. Dividing these bedrooms, two on each side, are three smaller rooms and a staircase to the attic.

View of recently installed brown and gold bedroom room at Millford. In the foreground is an original French bedstead by Duncan Phyfe & Son and one of the four original marble-topped basin stands. In the back left corner is one of the original cheval glasses made for Millford. The June 2, 1841 bill of lading for furniture sent to Millford by Duncan Phyfe & Son includes two “swing glasses,” named as such because the large looking glass frame “swings” or pivots between the two columns that flank it. This handsome mahogany cheval glass is the recent gift of Marika and Thomas Smith. Watch for an upcoming article on their generous gift, its conservation, and the history of the form. (Photo by John Teague)

Left, plan of the principal or ground floor of Millford by master builder Nathaniel Potter, 1839. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Right, plan of the second floor of Millford by Nathaniel Potter, 1839. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Due to their position in the corners of the house, each bedroom enjoys ample light that streams in from two directions through four large-paned windows. Each bedroom also has a fireplace with a handsome marble mantel of the finest quality, made of white statuary marble in the two bedrooms on one side of the hall and black and gold Egyptian marble on the other, a pattern that is repeated on the ground floor. On the surviving 1839 plan of the second floor of the house all four bedrooms measure 22 feet wide (see second floor plan). The largest bedroom in the northwest front corner of the house measures 20 x 22 feet and enjoys a stunning, near eye-level view of the Corinthian capitals of the colonnade. Diagonally across the hall from it is the second largest bedroom, which is just a tad smaller at approximately 19 x 22 feet. Each of these bedrooms has a private entrance to a dressing room. (In the 1920s these dressing rooms were turned into modern bathrooms and continue to function as such with their original sinks, showers, tubs, and fixtures.) The smaller bedroom in the southwest corner at the rear of the house measures 16 x 22 feet and also has a doorway leading to a smaller adjacent room. This smaller room, however, has a second door that communicates with the hall, which may suggest it served as a sitting room or a bedroom for a nurse or servant who stayed nearby the family at night. The other smaller bedroom, diagonally across the hall at the front of the house, did not have an adjacent room. These two smaller bedrooms may have served as a nursery for the Manning’s first-born child, Richard Irvine Manning (1839-unknown), and a guest room for relatives or close friends.

Left, ladies writing firescreen, attributed to Duncan Phyfe & Son, ca. 1840. This example, recently purchased by Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, is identical in design to one in a private collection that appears in the June 2, 1841 bill of lading from Duncan Phyfe & Son and is described as a "screen for Mrs. Hampton." Here it is shown in the bedroom with its front flap lowered for writing. (Photo by John Teague)

Right, candlelight improves everything, especially when reflected in the Duncan Phyfe & Son cheval glass. The cheval glass retains its original brass candle arms and large imported looking glass plate. (Photo by John Teague)

John Laurence and Susan Hampton Manning most likely occupied the two largest bedrooms. The presence of a private dressing room for each lends strength to such a supposition. It is tempting to imagine that Susan occupied the largest bedroom at the front of the house with its white marble mantel and view of the Corinthian capitals, and John, the bedroom diagonally across the hall at the rear with the black and gold Egyptian marble mantel, though it just as likely could have been the other way around. Documentary evidence to prove such an arrangement has yet to be discovered.

Packed in some of the forty-seven boxes of furniture sent by Duncan Phyfe & Son to Millford in 1841 were one “Grecian Bedstead”, one “French Bedstead,” and one “‘single” bedstead. A letter of September 11, 1841 from Duncan Phyfe & Son to Manning indicates that an additional thirty-nine boxes of furniture were destined for Milford as well. Contained in this second shipment almost certainly was a second Grecian bedstead and possibly another French bedstead as well. We can surmise this because among the three bedsteads with Millford histories recently acquired by CAHPT are two of the finer and more expensive Grecian models and one of the simpler French design. (The Grecian bedsteads have scrolled ends that terminate in the Phyfe shop’s signature applied flattened discs, more fully articulated elliptical-shaped feet, and veneered head and foot boards contoured to follow the s-shaped curves of the scrolled ends.)

View of recently installed red bedroom at Milllford, featuring an original Duncan Phyfe & Son, rosewood-veneered Grecian bedstead and en suite nightstand and basin stand. A large rosewood-veneered wardrobe now at the Hampton-Preston house in Columbia, South Carolina was part of the original rosewood bedroom suite at Millford, as most likely was a yet to be discovered rosewood cheval glass. The cheval glass now in the bedroom is not original to Millford but is attributed to Duncan Phyfe, ca. 1825. (Photo by John Teague)

Another telling document is a letter of January 7, 1842 to John Laurence Manning from Phyfe & Brother of New York – Duncan Phyfe’s nephews – who provided all of the curtains and curtain hardware for Millford. In this letter they mention a recent shipment made to Manning’s agent in Charleston and specifically describe the contents of box “No. 2” as “2 Octagon canopies,” and box “No. 3 – 1 round and 1 Oval canopies for blue and white curts [sic].” Accepting the notion that the largest and most desirable bedrooms were reserved for the master and the mistress of the house, it also makes sense that the more elaborate octagon–shaped canopies and the finer and more expensive Grecian bedsteads were made for their use. One of the recently acquired Grecian bedsteads is veneered with mahogany and the other with rosewood, the most exotic and expensive cabinet wood used in the period. Would this superfine Grecian bedstead have been reserved for Susan Hampton Manning? One likes to think that her chivalrous husband may have insisted on this but it also should be remembered that Susan’s inherited wealth largely underwrote the cost of building Millford!

It is fun to try to interpret the historical evidence provided by the 1839 plan and the Duncan Phyfe & Son and Phyfe & Brother bills of lading to theoretically reconstruct how these second floor bedrooms rooms may have originally functioned and looked. But historical accuracy, or our idea of what that might be, is not really what we were striving for in this first venture into installing two of the bedrooms at Millford. For these installations we tried to take advantage of the best of the past – original Phyfe bedroom furniture – as well as the best of the present – the decoration by Dick Jenrette and Bill Thompson – to reimagine two beautiful and interesting rooms. And, as Dick likes to say when I try to implicate him in my magical thinking about the past at Millford – “Quien sabe, I wasn’t there,” a sound and cautionary note for any historian trying to reconstruct the past.

The newly installed bedrooms at Millford are the two closest to the top of the stairs. When Dick acquired Millford and occasionally lived there he turned these two bedrooms into a library and an office/television room, furnishing them in ways appropriate to that use. The window and carpet treatments, like those in the ground floor rooms, were high-toned and stylish, and maintaining these features does not break with the overall design aesthetic at Millford. When the rooms were cleared and the recently acquired bedroom furniture was placed where much of it originally stood, however, something magical seemed to happen. The bold scale of Phyfe’s Grecian plain style furniture as well as its clean lines and richly figured veneers melded perfectly into the mise-en-scène. It looked like it was made for the place. And it was!

Rosewood veneered Grecian bedstead from Millford by Duncan Phyfe & Son, 1841. The crimson satin bed curtains and wide borders with silver threads are based on a surviving set of window curtains from Millwood, the nearby house of Wade Hampton II. By tradition these were rescued before the house was burned in the Civil War. The bed curtains and canopy were fabricated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art prior to its 2012 retrospective on the work of Duncan Phyfe. In a letter to John Manning from Phyfe and Brother, who fabricated the curtains and canopies for the bedsteads at Millford, is a description of the method used to suspend the canopies from the ceilings: “The iron bolts to support the canopies must be passed from the floor above, and secured by the nut on the under side of the canopy, should the bolts be too long the same must be shortened from the screwed ends.” (Photo by Bruce Schwarz)

Rosewood-veneered basin stand made for Millford by Duncan Phyfe & Son, 1841. The basin stand is veneered and finished on all four sides and has casters under its flattened bun feet, indicating that it was meant to be placed out in the room. The basin stands at Millford were used either in the bedrooms or else in the adjacent dressing rooms.
(Photo by Bruce Schwarz)

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