One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon (especially in the gloomy winter months) is visiting house museums. Typically these are grand old mansions that have been converted into museums for the public, like the mansions in Newport. Lissa and I grew up visiting 19th-century mansions, and we loved wandering the halls, admiring the rich furnishings and deep-piled carpets, hearing juicy stories about the houses’ former inhabitants. Luckily, Rhode Island is full of these grandes dames.
The house was decked out for the holidays when I visited. Since daughter Marjorie Van Wickle traveled to Europe in the early 20th century, each room featured souvenirs from her travels, like picture postcards and Baedeker guidebooks. Visitors could move around the house at their own pace, and I took my time in each room, admiring the carved wooden furniture, the embellished prints and watercolors. The travel souvenirs were a special thrill–in college I wrote my senior thesis on women traveling to Europe on the Grand Tour. Deciphering the old-fashioned script on the postcards was like visiting an old friend.
Afterwards I walked around the dormant gardens and stared out to the water. There’s something very peaceful about wandering the grounds of a mansion in winter. The entire estate seems muted, and when you’re outside you feel like the only person in the whole world.
I was definitely in a class of my own that day–much younger than the elderly women touring the house with their friends, much older than the little girls having tea in the dining room. House museums are apparently not that popular among the twenty-something set. But the generational gap actually added to my experience.
What I love most about these visits is the feeling, however fleeting, of being transported to another era. Maybe for a moment I imagine it’s 1903, and all these smiling people in photographs are still alive and well. Or maybe I get a strong memory of my grandparents and how comforting it was to visit them when I was little. For a moment I’m out of time. And when I need a break from the daily grind, there’s nothing better.