The Met

Early America at The Met

By Amanda Muscato

The period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art transport visitors through hundreds of years of American history, immersing those who venture through the maze of galleries in full-scale, original recreations of homes from the earliest days of Colonial New England to the heyday of mid-century modernism. Looking to get in touch with America at another time and place this Independence Day? Consider beating the heat with a visit to the Met's American Wing. Here, we take a closer look at four exceptional period rooms from the decades leading up to and following the American Revolution.

The Hart Room

Room from the Hart House, Ipswich, Massachusetts, c. 1680, Made in Ipswich, Massachusetts, United States, Wood, oak, pine, Munsey Fund, 1936

This room from the Hart House provides a glimpse of what America’s earliest interiors looked like. Taken from the home of Thomas Hart, a Puritan who settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts, the room was also the first American period room to be installed at the Met. The Hart Room includes many features typical of early New England homes, like massive oak timbers, small windows (glass was a luxury) with diamond shaped leaded panels, white plaster walls, and a large fireplace.
Though the room is sparse, curators at the Met acquired it as it was one of the few 17th century rooms to exhibit an attempt at decoration; the wood beams and fireplace mantel are subtly ornamented. The Hart Room also includes examples of some of the most intricate furniture produced in early colonial America, such as the richly carved chest by Ipswich joiners Searle and Dennis. Much of the furniture is not original to the house. Still, curators were able to correctly furnish the house by finding items listed in Thomas Hart’s household inventory.

The Hewlett Room

Fireplace wall paneling from the John Hewlett House, Probably John Hewlett, 1740–60, Made in Woodbury, New York, United States, Panel: 9 ft. 3/4 in. x 17 ft. 3 in., Gift of Mrs. Robert W. de Forest, 1910

Move forward a few galleries and a few decades into the Hewlett Room, a space which bears evidence of a rapidly changing early America. This period room demonstrates a swift evolution in design and decorative arts.
By the 18th century, the 17th century and William and Mary styles had fallen out of fashion in favor of neoclassicism. The neoclassical style incorporated classical details like arches and columns that had been copied from Greek and Roman structures. Neoclassicism took hold in colonial America through English pattern and design books popular among craftsmen and builders. The Hewlett Room, taken from a home in Woodbury, New York, incorporates a myriad of such elements including arches, fluted pilasters, and capitals. The evolution in style and design exhibited during this time was in part due to the gained affluence of America and its citizens and the increased influx of skilled craftsman and ideas to its shores.

The room was created by local New York craftsmen, who did not strictly adhere to the tenets of neoclassicism, thus creating their own unique version of the style. The room contains American made furniture such as a high chest of drawers, a type of case furniture that was unique to 18th century American interiors. This high chest displays distinctive American features like curved stretchers and five turned legs.

The Powel Room

Room from the Powel House, Philadelphia, 1765–66, remodeled 1769–71, Made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, Wood and plaster, Rogers Fund, 1918

The Powel Room, an example of high Georgian style, is significant both for its exquisite interior and its illustrious history. The parlor room was taken from the former Philadelphia home of Charles Powel, a wealthy member of Philadelphia’s elite who served as the city’s mayor during the American Revolution. The home served as a social center in Philadelphia and the surrounding region, and was visited by the Founding Fathers inclduing George Washington and John Adams, who remarked that the home was a “splendid seat.”
The Powel Room reflects the height of taste and refinement in colonial America with finely executed Georgian style woodwork. By the late 18th century, Philadelphia had become a hub of furniture production in America and became known for its Rococo style pieces influenced by the designs of Thomas Chippendale. Though the room’s original furniture has long been lost, the Met has furnished it with the most exquisite examples of Philadelphia furniture, acquired over the decades since the Museum's founding at the end of the 19th century.

The Baltimore Room

Mantel from Drawing Room of the Craig House, Baltimore, Maryland, c. 1810, Made in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, Wood, Rogers Fund, 1918

In the years following the Revolution, the Federal style, which borrowed even more heavily from classical and antique forms, became prevalent among American decorative arts and interiors. While the interpretation of this style varied regionally, it was generally defined by clean lines, delicate forms, and geometric construction. The Baltimore Room offers an example of the consummate Federal dining room. By the early 19th century, as Americans became more prosperous, they began dedicating a specific room for dining in their homes. This called for new forms of furniture such as the sideboard and dropped leaf dining room table.

During this time, Americans sought to assert their burgeoning national identity through visual culture. As a result, many pieces of Federal furniture and decorative arts during this period incorporated American iconography. The dining room table in the Baltimore Room features an inlaid bald eagle at the top of each leg. The table is covered with porcelain dinner service that also incorporates patriotic motifs like the American flag.

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