What’s Under the John Brown House?
A hint: Lots and lots of cool stuff.
When “Hoarders” first premiered on A and E, it was their most popular reality TV show to date. More than two million tuned in to the first episode to gawk at people who compulsively collected bric-a-brac, junk and everything in between. So what does this have to do with the formidable John Brown House? Well, it seems that the Rhode Island Historical Society, which maintains the historic home, has a bit of a hoarding streak too and it’s letting the public take a peek at it.
Every Wednesday this fall, the Historical Society hosts free presentations, demonstrations and behind-the-scenes tours of its historic homes and museums. Called “What Cheer Wednesdays,” these weekly occurrences are meant to show the public a day in the life of a museum, whether it’s by explaining the process of creating an exhibit or by exploring off-limit areas. This past What Cheer Wednesday, a tour guide showed me and a couple of other wannabe historians the basement of the John Brown House where they store some of the items that don’t make it into exhibits.
We wait patiently as Dana Munroe, registrar at the Historical Society and our guide for this subterranean tour, unclipped the velvet rope and ushered us down the stairs. The wallpaper decorating the staircase is the first tip-off that Marsden Perry, the owner of the home in the early twentieth century, had a somewhat excessive sense of taste. While most basement staircases are adorned with a splintery handrail and a dangling light bulb, Marsden went all out.
“This wallpaper is actually hand-tooled leather. It was installed by Perry after he purchased the house in 1901,” Dana explains.
After marveling at the Italian craftsmanship and Perry’s gaudy interior designing, we continue down the short flight of stairs. We wait at the bottom as Dana fishes out a set of keys and unlocks a heavy-duty door. The lights flicker on with an electric hum, revealing rows of steel shelves chock-full of an incomprehensible jumble of antiques. A flotilla of large model ships perches on one shelf; Colonial barks sail in front of an enormous twentieth century battleship while two wizened cigar store Indians watch the armada from the corner.
Dana talks about the room and Marsden Perry’s contribution to it; unfortunately, I’m distracted. The sheer variety of objects from every time period imaginable is already stretching my attention to its limits. Antique chairs, blackened tools, a vintage can of insecticide and a whole lot more — all jumbled together.
Most of the artifacts are draped with cloth to protect them from dust and prying eyes, but what we can see is fascinating. Tiny model churches and homes sit next to an enormous drum labeled “American Band, 1853.” An old time clock hulks in one corner, waiting for factory workers to punch in. As I slowly become acclimated to the chaos, I start to actually listen.
Dana walks over to a squat wooden box with a slim crank.
“This is a hand-cranked Victrola. In that corner is a ’70s hi-fi system, and there,” she pointed across the aisle at a shiny red box, “is a very vintage TV.”
“It’s the history of entertainment,” she says with a laugh.
“There are even a couple of death masks,” she whispers excitedly, like a kid talking about a forbidden toy. “It’s pretty creepy to open up that box and see them when you’re not expecting it.”
We filed out of the room as she switches off the lights and locks the door.
Dana unlocks another metal door labeled “No admittance” in blocky, red letters. It swings open slowly and we walk into what had once been Marsden Perry’s wine cellar. With its vaulted ceiling and brick archways, it seems more like catacombs, the final resting place for hundreds of pieces of dishware, glass bottles and, oddly enough, a derelict bumper car.
“It used to belong to Crescent Amusement Park in Riverside, but in the Hurricane of ’38 it was washed away and it ended up in our hands,” Dana explains.
She opens up some drawers revealing crumbling metal tools neatly boxed and tagged, a rusting collection discovered on local archeological digs. She points out an old axe head with a yellowing note attached to it.
“Although the date on the note is from the 1700s, it was actually written in the nineteenth century. This was probably in someone’s cabinet of curiosities. A collector labeled when the artifact was from and what was known about it.”
Reading the scrawled note, I can’t help but wonder if bits and pieces of this museum, notes and all, will end up in some future museum. Will there be a museum of museums one day?
Pondering these meta musings, I leave the wine cellar and continue to wander the basement. Dana takes us to an old laundry room with an enormous, dull-bronze cash register plopped in the middle. In another dim room, charred bellows taller than me lean in a corner. Down the hallway is a mechanical Snow White puppet show that hasn’t worked in decades, dusty dwarves frozen in motion on the tiny stage, hiding behind a line of empty light sockets. From broken Colonial dishes to rusty carnival rides, there is no rhyme or reason to what’s down there.
We climb back up the stairs, out of the spectacular clutter and into the neat and proper museum. As I leave the house, I imagine the eclectic treasure-trove that it sits on — hidden away, slowly growing as people donate artifacts to the Historical Society. Occasionally, an object might venture out, bask in the limelight of an exhibit for a few months, and then take a decades-long sleep in its subterranean home. Or maybe, in a couple of years, the entire collection will be viewed by millions. I can see it now: “Hoarders: Museum Edition.”
What Cheer Wednesdays are held every Wednesday until December 14 and include free admission into the John Brown House or Museum of Work and Culture and a free tour, presentation or demonstration. Check rihs.org for more details.