Periwinkle blue walls in the foyer, lavender walls in the West Parlor, a red and gold carpet with pyramids and birds-of-paradise, and hand-painted borders by Thomas Cole himself on the walls … . These are some of the elements of the original décor of the first-floor rooms of Cole’s 1815 home that will be restored as a result of two major federal grants that were recently awarded to the Thomas Cole Historic Site: $460,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities and $150,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
As an integral part of the project, the rooms will be infused with interactive exhibits that enable visitors to enter and engage with the story of Thomas Cole. In July 2015, Senator Charles Schumer visited the Cole site to call for federal funding for the restoration project and to announce the discovery of the decorative painting. We are delighted to announce that the funding has now come through.
Around the time of his 1836 marriage, the artist began decorating the first-floor rooms of his home, creating a carefully orchestrated setting in which to display his paintings. It was a project that he was well prepared to do, as he had extensive formal training and experience in the decorative arts. As a young man, he designed and printed cotton fabric, wallpaper and floor cloth; painted scenes on window blinds; and ornamented painted chairs and household objects. On a visit to Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1832, he saw ancient Roman buildings with elaborately decorated walls. Enthralled, he purchased John Goldicutt’s book, Specimens of Ancient Decorations From Pompeii. Its colored illustrations helped inspire his scheme for his Catskill home.
In the West Parlor, Cole combined luminous lavender walls with a painted frieze depicting folds of fabric in blues and greens. A new gold carpet with a repeating pattern of white stepped pyramids and exotic red birds completed the effect. In the adjacent pantry, the same carpet was paired with Pompeian red walls and a dramatic black meander border. The East Parlor featured green walls and an even more elaborate painted border, featuring swags of drapery, ribbons, and a branch with thorns and roses. The full extent of the painted design is not yet known, as only a small portion of it has been uncovered. With the new NEH grant, the careful exposure work will now resume. Once recreated, the rooms will immerse visitors in the artist’s vision, just as they did during his lifetime.
The hand-painted decoration was covered over with wall paint during the 20th century, and its existence was unknown until internationally renowned paint analyst Matthew Mosca, under the direction of historic interiors specialist Jean Dunbar, discovered it as part of a comprehensive paint analysis throughout the building. During several visits in 2014, Mosca painstakingly uncovered a fragment of approximately 12 square inches in size in each parlor. The painting is believed to continue around the entire perimeter of each room, up near the ceiling, as a frieze.
To design and implement the interactive exhibits, the Thomas Cole Historic Site has engaged Riggs Ward Design, a multidisciplinary firm located in Richmond, Virginia. The firm specializes in visitor engagement in museums and cultural centers through experiential exhibit design and interactive media. Rather than create a roped-off interior that visitors are excluded from entering, the Thomas Cole site intends to take visitors on a journey into a specific time and place in American history to explore why Cole would paint images that look the way they do, what he was trying to communicate, what forces were at work in America that enabled these images to become so influential, and how these images came to profoundly shape American attitudes. The historic interiors and the interactive exhibits will be implemented in phases over the next two years.