Ventfort Hall Library, Lenox, Mass

The library at Ventfort Hall in Lenox, probably around the 1890s. Image courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in more detail in a previous post, Ventfort Hall was completed in 1893 as the summer home of George and Sarah Morgan. The house was subsequently owned by the Bonsal family from 1925 until 1945, and during the second half of the 20th century it was used for a variety of purposes, including as dormitory, hotel, ballet school, and religious organization. It was nearly demolished in the early 1990s, but it was instead preserved and restored, and it is now a museum.

These two photos show the library, which is located on the first floor in the northwest corner of the building. The first photo as probably taken soon after the house was completed, and the room’s appearance highlights the Victorian fashion of having eclectic, cluttered interior spaces. This included a mix of mismatched chairs, along with walls that were nearly hidden by bookcases, paintings, photographs, and knickknacks.

Today, the library has been restored, and it is easily recognizable from its appearance in the first photo. However, unlike most of the other rooms in Ventfort Hall, it is not furnished with period antiques. Instead, as the 2018 photo shows, it is filled with modern tables and chairs, and its modern-day uses now include serving as a gathering space for guided tours of the Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum.

Ventfort Hall Entryway, Lenox, Mass

The entryway at Ventfort Hall in Lenox, probably in the 1890s. Image courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

The scene in 2018:

Ventfort Hall was completed in 1893, as one of the many grand summer estates that were built in the Berkshires during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first photo was probably taken soon after its completion, and it shows the first floor entry hall. The main entrance, located on the northeast side of the building, is just around the corner to the right, as is the grand staircase. This scene, which faces to the northwest, shows an ornate fireplace in the center, and it is flanked by doors on either side. To the left is the library, and to the right is the drawing room.

This house was used as a summer residence throughout the first half of the 20th century, but these large homes in the Berkshires had begun to fall out of fashion by the postwar era. With 28 rooms and 28,000 square feet, Ventfort Hall was far too large for a private home, so it was converted into institutional use. It was first used as a dormitory, then as a hotel, a ballet school, and finally as a religious organization before finally being abandoned in the late 1980s. By this point, the building was badly deteriorated, and it was sold to a developer and threatened by demolition in the early 1990s.

During this period, the interior woodwork was stripped in anticipation of demolition, but the property was ultimately acquired by the Ventfort Hall Association in 1997. In the years that followed, this organization restored both the interior and exterior, including re-installing the woodwork, most of which had been left here on site. Some of the pieces were unaccounted for, but these were replaced with modern replicas. The 2018 photo shows some of the new woodwork, which has a light color that contrasts with the darker original wood. Overall, though, this scene is not significantly different from the first photo, thanks to the meticulous restoration work over the past two decades.

Ventfort Hall Drawing Room, Lenox, Mass

The drawing room at Ventfort Hall in Lenox, probably around the 1890s. Image courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

The room in 2018:

Although the term is rather archaic now, a drawing room was essentially a living room, functioninging as a place that guests could “withdraw” to after a dinner party. Here in Ventfort Hall, the drawing room is located in the northwest corner of the first floor, next to the main entrance and across the entry hall from the grand staircase, which can be seen beyond the doors in the present-day photo. The first photo shows the room at some point around the 1890s, probably soon after the house was completed in 1893.

Ventfort Hall remained a summer home for more than 50 years, and the drawing room was likely used for its original purpose throughout much of this time. However, the last private owner sold the property in 1945, and the house subsequently became, at various times, a dormitory, a hotel, a ballet school, and a religious school. By the late 20th century, it had deteriorated on both the interior and exterior, and it was nearly demolished in the 1990s. It was ultimately preserved, though, and the house was restored to its original appearance and opened for public tours starting in 2000.

Today, the property is the Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, and the historic home is still open for guided tours of the interior. Here in the drawing room, the furnishing is not identical to the first photo, and plain white walls have replaced the busy Victorian wallpaper, but otherwise the room is easily recognizable from the first photo, including the restored ceiling and the ornate mantelpiece. Because of its location adjacent to the front door, the drawing room now serves as the museum’s gift shop, as shown in the present-day scene.

Ventfort Hall Grand Staircase, Lenox, Mass

The grand staircase in Ventfort Hall in Lenox, around the 1890s. Image courtesy of the Lenox Library Association.

The staircase in 2018:

As discussed in more detail in the previous post, Ventfort Hall was completed in 1893 as the summer home of George and Sarah Morgan. Sarah was the sister of financier J. P. Morgan, and she constructed this house soon after receiving a $3 million inheritance from their father, Junius Spencer Morgan, upon his death in 1890. However, she died only three years after the house was completed, and George died in 1911, but the house remained in the Morgan family until 1925, when it was sold to railroad executive William Roscoe Bonsal.

The house was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Rotch & Tilden, with a brick, Jacobean Revival exterior. The interior consists of 28 rooms, but perhaps the most impressive space in the house is the grand staircase, shown here in this scene. It is located just inside the main entryway on the north side of the house, and it features a carved oak banister and oak paneling, matching the Jacobean style of the house. The second floor is decorated with arches, and above them is an ornate plaster ceiling.

Ventfort Hall remained a summer residence until around 1945, and during the second half of the 20th century it was used for a variety of other purposes, including a dormitory, hotel, and ballet school. From 1976 to 1987, it was part of the Bible Speaks College, but it subsequently sat vacant and was threatened with demolition. However, in 1997 it was acquired by the Ventfort Hall Association, which restored it and opened it as a museum.

Today, the appearance of the grand staircase has hardly changed since the first photo was taken some 125 years ago. Much of the interior suffered from neglect in the late 20th century, but the staircase remained well-preserved, and it remains one of the highlights of the building’s interior. Ventfort Hall is still open to the public for tours, and its restoration marks a major accomplishment for historic preservation in the Berkshires.

Assembly Room, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Assembly Room on the first floor of Independence Hall, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The room in 2018:

As discussed in an earlier post, Independence Hall was completed in 1753 as the Pennsylvania State House, the colony’s first capitol building. The first floor consisted of two large rooms on either side of a central hall. To the west was the courtroom for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, while the room on the east side, which is shown here, housed the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly. As a result, this room was known as the Assembly Room, and it was the meeting place of the colonial legislature – and later the state legislature – throughout the second half of the 18th century. However, this room is most remembered for housing the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1783, and for being the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Philadelphia had played a central role in the American Revolution since 1774, when the First Continental Congress convened in the city from September 5 to October 26 of that year. The city served as a convenient meeting place between the northern and southern colonies, but the delegates met at the recently-constructed Carpenters’ Hall, instead of here at the State House. It was not until the Second Continental Congress, which convened on May 10, 1775, that the colonial delegates would meet here in the Assembly Room of what would become known as Independence Hall.

When these delegates arrived here for the Second Continental Congress, the American Revolution was less than a month old, having started on April 19 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. As a result, the Congress soon began to exercise control over the colonial military, starting with the creation of the Continental Army on June 14 and the appointment of George Washington as its commanding officer. Washington, who was part of the Virginia delegation here in Congress, was nominated for the position by John Adams, and Washington subsequently left for Boston to assume command of the army.

Another important congressional action occurred less than a month later, on July 8, when the delegates approved the Olive Branch Petition. Intended as a peace overture to Britain, in order to appease the more conservative members, this petition was summarily rejected by the British government. However, it proved significant in highlighting the fact that Britain was not receptive to compromises, which gave the more radical members a stronger case in favor of declaring independence.

Even so, it would take nearly another year before the Continental Congress finally declared independence. The resolution, known as the Lee Resolution after its sponsor, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, was introduced here on June 7, 1776. In the ensuing weeks, the idea of independence was debated, a draft declaration was written, and the resolution finally passed on July 2, after last-minute actions to secure yes votes from South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

John Adams, who was among the delegates in attendance, believed that this day would be celebrated by future generations as Independence Day. As it turned out, though, it ended up being July 4 – the day when Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence – that would be remembered as such. However, despite popular images of the Founding Fathers lining up here to sign the document, no such scene actually occurred on that day. Instead, historians generally identify August 2 as the date when most delegates signed, although some signatures would be added as late as November.

Following the Declaration of Independence, Congress continued to meet here throughout most of the war, with two interruptions during British occupations of Philadelphia. The first occurred from December 1776 through March 1777, when Congress met in Baltimore, and the second lasted from September 1777 to July 1778, with Congress meeting in Lancaster for one day and then York, Pennsylvania for the duration. The Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first constitution, was written while Congress was in York, but it did not go into effect until 1781, when Maryland signed it here in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress did not see significant change. It remained a unicameral legislature, with each state having one vote regardless of population, and it continued to meet here in Independence Hall for several years, making this the de facto national capitol building. However, Congress’s time here was cut short by a dispute between it and the state government of Pennsylvania, which also occupied this building. In June 1783, a mob of about 400 American soldiers descended upon Independence Hall, demanding payment for their wartime service. Congress asked the state’s Supreme Executive Council to call in the militia to suppress the riot, but the state declined, and Congress left the city on June 21.

When Congress reconvened nine days later, it was at Nassau Hall in Princeton, New Jersey. Over the next few years, Congress would also meet in Annapolis, Trenton, and then in New York City, which became the national capital until 1790. Congress would never return here to Independence Hall, but this room would play one more important role in the national government in 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met here from May 25 through September 17, 1787. Although officially intended to “revise” the heavily flawed Articles of Confederation, this convention ultimately created a completely new blueprint for the national government, and the current United States Constitution was signed here on September 17, by delegates from 12 of the 13 states.

The Constitutional Convention became famous for its many compromises, with delegates seeking to strike a balance between the large states and small states, and between the north and the south. Perhaps the most important was the Connecticut Compromise, which established a bicameral legislature, with equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House. The proportional representation caused another controversy, though, with regards to how slaves should be counted for representation purposes. This was resolved by the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted three-fifths of the slave population toward Congressional representation, thus preventing southern states from becoming too dominant in national politics.

The end of the Constitutional Convention also marked the end of this room’s use for national political gatherings. The new Constitution went into effect in 1789, and a year later the national government returned to Philadelphia for a ten-year period, while Washington, D.C. was being developed. However, during this time period Congress met next door in Congress Hall, while the Supreme Court met in a matching building on the other side of Independence Hall. In the meantime, the Assembly Room here in Independence Hall would continue to be used by the state legislature, but in 1799 the state capital was moved to Lancaster, leaving this building largely vacant.

During the early 19th century, parts of Independence Hall were used by artist Charles Willson Peale, who established a natural history museum and portrait gallery here. The building was nearly demolished in the 1810s, but it was instead purchased by the city of Philadelphia. Early in the city’s ownership, the original paneling here in the Assembly Room was removed, but the room was subsequently restored by noted architect John Haviland in 1833. However, this restoration, which is shown in the first photo some 70 years later, was not entirely accurate, and was largely based on the appearance of the adjacent Supreme Court Room.

Throughout the 19th century, the Assembly Room was used for a wide variety of purposes. Many patriotic events were held here, with distinguished visitors such as Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. The bodies of both Clay and Lincoln would later lay in state here in this room, as did the body of John Quincy Adams following his death in 1848. In addition, this room was also used as a museum, displaying a number of objects relating to American Revolution. During the second half of the 19th century, the Liberty Bell was on display here, before being moved to the base of the tower, and the room also housed a large collection of Charles Willson Peale’s portraits. Some of these are visible in the first photo, including his famous George Washington at Princeton, which stands in the corner on the left side of the scene.

The Assembly Room later underwent a second major renovation in the mid-20th century, restoring it to its presumed 18th century appearance. The room was also furnished during this time, although almost none of the objects are original to the room. Today, there are only two artifacts that survive from the Revolutionary period. The oldest of these is the Syng inkstand, which sits on the table at the front of the room in the present-day scene. Made in 1752, this inkstand was used in the signing of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it is visible in the first photo, in a small display case in front of the fireplace on the left side.

The other object, and the only surviving piece of furniture from the 18th century, is the chair in the center of the room, which is visible in both photos. This was made in 1779, and it was the seat where George Washington sat while presiding over the Constitutional Convention. It is often known as the Rising Sun Armchair, because of the carved sun on the top of it. This decoration caught the attention of Benjamin Franklin during the Constitutional Convention, and he remarked on it as the delegates were signing the document. His words, which were recorded in James Madison’s notes, provided a fitting conclusion to the convention that marked a new beginning for the United States:

Whilst the last members were signing it Doctr. Franklin looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.

Supreme Court Room, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Supreme Court Room at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The room in 2018:

The ground floor of Independence Hall – originally known as the Pennsylvania State House – consists of two large rooms. On the east side is the more famous Assembly Room, where the colonial legislature and Continental Congress met, and where the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution were signed. On the opposite side of the building is this room, which was originally built as the courtroom for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The two rooms are separated by a central hall, but, unlike the Assembly Room, the courtroom does not have any doors separating it from the hall. Instead, there are three large arches between the hall and courtroom, highlighting the importance of public judicial proceedings.

The Supreme Court met here throughout the 1700s. It originally consisted of three justices, although in 1767 its size was increased to four. During this time, probably its most prominent jurist was Thomas McKean, who served as Chief Justice from 1777 until 1799, when he was elected governor. Prior to his time on the bench, he represented Delaware in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776, and 1777 to 1783, serving as the president of Congress in 1783. He was also a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and he briefly served as president of Delaware in 1777. Another important member of the Supreme Court was John Morton, who served as an associate justice from 1774 until his death in 1777. He was simultaneously a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he signed the Declaration of Independence, and he was also the chairman of the committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation.

This building would continue to be used by the state government until 1799, when Philadelphia lost its status as the capital city to Lancaster. The Supreme Court subsequently relocated there, vacating its old quarters here in Independence Hall. The building was nearly demolished in the early 19th century, but it was instead purchased by the city of Philadelphia and preserved. By the 1870s, the Supreme Court room was in use as a museum, housing paintings and relics from the American Revolution. The room itself had also undergone some changes, including the arches, which had been closed since 1789 and separated from the central hall by a set of double doors.

The Supreme Court room was ultimately restored in the late 1890s, as shown by the first photo. However, the room was not furnished at the time, and its sparse decorations consisted of just a statue and several paintings. The paintings appear to all depict former justices, including William Bradford on the far left, Thomas Smith third to the right, and Thomas McKean on the wall in the center. The room would later undergo another major renovation in the 1960s, bringing it to its present-day appearance. As a result, it looks far more like a courtroom today than it did when the first photo was taken more than a century ago, and the room is, along with the Assembly Room, one of the two major stops on the public tours of Independence Hall.