Finding Refuge at the Kelton House Amid Needlepoint Trompe l’Oeil Window Treatments and Dresden-Laden Feather Trees

Ever since I had my CSG graduation party there, the Kelton House has been a favorite local landmark of mine.

Built in 1852 by Columbus merchant Fernando Cortez Kelton and his wife, Sophia, the Greek Revival and Italianate home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Keltons’ granddaughter, Grace, a noted interior decorator, lived in the home until her death in 1975. Soon after, it was restored by the Junior League of Columbus and opened to the public as a historic house museum.

Victorian throwbacks like me appreciate the fact that the museum contains the same furnishings, clothing, books and decorative art objects that were owned by the Keltons. Visitors can see a brooch made of woven hair, a lyre card table attributed to Duncan Phyfe, Staffordshire china, and a lithograph depicting President Lincoln’s funeral procession in Columbus. Two special favorites of mine are the needlepoint trompe l’oeil window treatments in the reception room and the drapery cornices in the drawing room that began life as a walnut bedstead.

There’s plenty of interesting historical trivia to learn about the Kelton House. According to Bill Arter’s Columbus Vignettes feature on the Kelton House, when the Kelton boys developed a fondness for billiards, their mother installed a billiard table in the front drawing room so they could improve their game and she could enjoy their company at home. Even the first landing on the stairway is significant. That’s where William Dean Howells proposed to his wife, Mr. Arter wrote.

It had been years since I’d visited the Kelton House during the holidays, so I walked over yesterday to see a display of 19th century Christmas ornaments from the collection of Michael Girard. Feather trees, antique glass ornaments, scenic cardboard villages, various renditions of Santa Claus and Dresden ornaments handcrafted from chromolithograph “scraps” and tinsel adorn each of the downstairs rooms. Upstairs, a cob-web game is under way in one of the bedrooms. In this Victorian Christmas tradition, children follow their own colored ribbon through a maze of many ribbons to find their gifts on which their ribbon ends. Unique Christmas cards drawn and sent by Grace Kelton hang on an upstairs hallway wall. The Kelton House’s holiday decorations are on display through January 6, 2012.

Located at 586 East Town Street, the Kelton House is a wonderful downtown Columbus attraction. While docent-led tours are available on Sunday afternoons at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 pm, an audio tour now makes it possible for Downtown workers like me to find refuge here Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm (the last tour begins at 3:00).

The audio tour is an excellent illustration of the Kelton House’s educational mission. Museum Director Georgeanne Reuter and others provide commentary about each of the rooms, including little-known features of particular objects. You can hear the ticking and chiming of the front-hall clock and the hiss of gas as the technique of lighting a gas chandelier is explained. Given my propensity to fainting, I paid close attention during a description of why the fainting couch was popular during the 19th century. Best of all was a revealing explanation of the Harper’s Weekly covers lining the walls of the Carriage House that’s now used for special events. Edward Penfield, one of the leading artists of the “Golden Age of American Illustration” and the art director of Harper’s Weekly, was a relative of Grace Kelton’s. Take the audio tour to hear why these magazine covers were displayed in shop windows and some interesting trivia about the July cover on the northeast wall.

Besides touring the Keltons’ home, you can enjoy several special features during a visit to the Kelton House Museum. Monthly afternoon Victorian teas offer an array of sweet and savory treats, plus a short educational program about an object from the museum’s collection. A series of Civil War Sesquicentennial programs and “Martha’s Journey,” a living history drama for 3rd and 4th graders about the house’s role on the Underground Railroad, are ways to discover history through the Kelton House. And the museum gift shop is a great source for unique gifts. In addition to carrying items reminiscent of the 19th century, the shop sells two prints of original artwork by Grace Kelton and items handcrafted by local female artists, in keeping with the Junior League’s mission of developing the potential of women.

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