The Furniture of A.J. Davis, J.& J.W. Meeks, and the Herter Brothers at Lyndhurst
As a country estate, Lyndhurst was successively sold with its contents and was almost continually occupied from 1842, when its first owners took possession of the newly built home, until 1961 when the estate was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. As a result, the house maintains the preponderance of furnishings from the three main families who owned it over the past 175 years; the Pauldings, the Merritts, and the Goulds.
Through extant architectural drawings, death inventories, and extensive photography that begins circa 1870, the changes in the furnishing of Lyndhurst over time are extremely well documented. As a result, Lyndhurst is not only one of the most significant American houses of the 19th century but it is also one of those rare American buildings that still maintains its original interior finishes, artworks, and furniture and the extensive documentation to show how it was decorated. These furnishings illustrate how American cultural tastes evolved throughout the 19th century and how many of our current attitudes towards the built environment originated during this period.
The Significance of the Parlor
In American homes, the parlor was considered the most important room and was decorated elaborately, and use sparingly- primarily as a gathering place before and after large dinners. From the “best room” of the 17th and 18th-century house to the “living room” of the 20th century home, the tradition of the parlor has a long history in the United States. In the 19th century, the tradition of an elegantly decorated parlor was sacrosanct and even homes of relatively modest means had at least one room that could be maintained to receive important family members and guests. Decoration of the parlor often showed a feminine hand and was traditionally the place where the lady of the house could display the distinctive stamp of her taste.
Lyndhurst’s parlor was very important and was the only room fully redecorated by each new family that took possession of the mansion. Luckily, Lyndhurst still owns all three parlor suites used by each family, and starting in 1870 with the parlor of the second family, the room was photographed and documented.
The three suites of parlor furniture at Lyndhurst were installed circa 1841, 1865, and 1882. The date of the furniture approximately tracks the three main economic events of the 19th century- the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the end of the Civil War in 1865, and the start of the Gilded Age in 1877. The evolution of these parlor suites, viewed in succession, show how the parlor becomes increasingly lavish during the 19th century- reflecting the growth in furniture makers, decorators, and retail merchants as New York becomes increasingly wealthy.
As the century progresses the parlor because less austere and becomes more of a place to display paintings, sculptures, and the general bric-a-brac associated with the high Victorian period. Moreover, because the parlor was the most important room in the house, its redecoration was the clearest statement of the values of each successive owner.