Whenever I pass the Italianate building located at 530 East Town Street in downtown Columbus, I admire the beautiful ornamental iron surrounding the front door and the elegantly carved stone that surrounds its eyebrow windows. Yesterday, I finally went inside the magnificent building that is the home of the international headquarters of Kappa Kappa Gamma Fraternity.
Marla Williams, the Fraternity’s director of education and training, gave me a wonderful tour of the three rooms on the main floor that constitute The Heritage Museum.
The house was built from 1852 to 1854 by Philip Snowden, a dry goods merchant, and his wife, Abigail, a milliner. The Snowdens paid $9,500 for the house. Unfortunately, bankruptcy led them to sell it in 1860 at a sheriff’s sale to satisfy the collection of back taxes, and David Tod became the new owner. When Tod served as Ohio Governor from 1862 to 1864, the home was the official gubernatorial residence. U.S. Senator Andrew Johnson from Tennessee (who later became Vice President and President after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) was a guest at the home during this period.
From 1865 until 1922, railroad executive David S. Gray, his wife, Eugenia Doolittle Gray, and their family occupied the house. Damage from an 1872 fire led the house to be rebuilt by George Bellows, Sr., a prominent Columbus architect of the day. After Gray’s death, his heirs sold the property to the Columbus Women’s Club. Remodeling undertaken by the theatrical organization included an addition that connected the former stable at the rear of the property to the back of the former residence. This new space became the second largest auditorium in Columbus at the time.
By 1941, financial difficulties led the group to sell its clubhouse, and the beautiful mansion eventually became a run-down rooming house. At the suggestion of its executive secretary, a Columbus resident, Kappa Kappa Gamma purchased the property in 1951 — for $1.00 — with the intent of it becoming the fraternity’s international headquarters. Two years of renovation followed. In 1975, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Snowden-Gray Mansion. The original downstairs rooms were returned to their 19th century style in 1981.
Period furnishings and decorative objects depict daily life and culture in the Victorian culture, with an emphasis on the lives and roles of women in the home. Fashionable and prized possessions on display in the Grand Parlor include an 1887 Weber piano that visitors are invited to play; a tussie-mussie, or bouquet of flowers that had symbolic meanings to Victorians; and a golden key badge, dating from 1870, which initiated Kappa Kappa Gamma members wear as an emblem of membership.
The pier mirror in the Grand Parlor is the only object that is original to the home. During renovation, it was discovered not only that one wire held up this floor-to-ceiling mirror, but also that layers of original wallpaper were hiding behind the mirror. Those fragments informed the choice of the reproduction wallpaper that now hangs in the room.
Marla pointed out the reproduction floral carpet that was woven in England and asked me if I could spot the seams in it. Carpets of the period were woven in 27” strips, so a Cleveland man sewed the strips together by hand, she said.
She also called my attention to the window treatments in the room.
“Victorian homes took a layered approach to windows,” she said. “Layers of shutters, lace curtains, and heavy draperies created a haven that protected the residents of the home and kept the outside world out.”
As we walked across the hall to the Morning Room, Marla showed me some spectacular examples of faux painting techniques that imitate wood and marble. Malcolm Robson and his son, Paul, are master grainers that have worked on projects at Buckingham Palace, the White House, Mount Vernon, and the Kelton House. The Robsons created wood graining on interior doors on the first floor and faux marble walls that extend from the ground floor to the upper floors of the original home.
The Morning Room is decorated to reflect the appearance of the room where the lady of the home spent much of her time. Surrounded by marbled paper walls and opulent drapes, I was in my element admiring the many examples of artistic pursuits that ladies engaged in during this period. A arrangement of flowers made of wax hangs above a melodeon that was made in Akron. An embroidered floral wreath dating from 1852 was reminiscent of the cushion cover worked in zephyr or Berlin wool that I saw at Winterthur. An elegant 19th century fleur-de-lis beadwork firescreen is mounted on the mantel; the fleur-de-lis is the Fraternity’s flower, representing dignity, stateliness and grace.
After pointing out a lover’s knot hairwork armband and talking about its significance in Victorian courtship, Marla called my attention to the collection of birds displayed underneath a glass cloche sitting on top of the mantel. Although Victorians preferred to keep the outside world firmly out of their homes, they welcomed bringing nature inside, Marla said. This arrangement, dating from 1870, illustrated a very curious pursuit of the period. Women would order dead birds from catalogs, stuff them and arrange them in lifelike poses to decorate their homes. Not long after, the National Audubon Society was founded, Marla observed.
In the dining room, one of David Gray’s renovations after the 1872 fire, I tried hard to contain my amazement when Marla lifted up a table pad and revealed a portion of the magnificent Duncan Phyfe mahogany table taking up the majority of the room. I wasn’t as successful at keeping my enthusiasm in check when she pointed out that the portraits in the room were of Celinda Hatton and her brother, who both taught art at Columbus School for Girls. On the sideboard, we admired a charming hot chocolate set that would have belonged to a young girl of the Victorian era. Beautiful sterling silver objects given as prizes to Fraternity chapters were right at home in an elegant example of built-in shelving in the corner of the room.
During the 19th century, the hallway provided guests with an initial glimpse into a family’s wealth and style. Just as the Victorians intended, I admired the delicate craftsmanship of the étagère that held knick-knacks and cherished possessions. After Marla showed me a beautifully carved cradle, she asked me whether I thought the small cupboard and bed were doll furniture. Education dollars continued to be at work when I correctly identified them as furniture samples. Marla also told me a great story about the life-size portrait of Tade Hartsuff Kuhns, the Fraternity’s first Grand President. Mrs. Kuhns wore a white dress for the sitting, but thought she needed more color, so she elegantly draped a table runner around her shoulders.
Finally, we climbed the home’s several flights of stairs, stopping to admire the many guest bedrooms that the Fraternity still uses to house members in town to attend meetings and other events. At the top of the last, very narrow, staircase, I found myself at the very top of the house, in a structure surrounded by windows that provides a scenic view of the neighborhood. While a widow’s walk is the common term for this structure on the coast, Marla taught me that in land-locked environments like ours, the enclosed cupola is referred to as a “Belvedere.” Marla said that David Tod’s wife, Maria, liked to rush up here before parties and see what her female guests were wearing as they emerged from their carriages. If anyone was wearing something more elegant than what she had chosen, she rushed downstairs to change into something else, so that she would be the best-dressed lady at the party.
The Heritage Museum is an educational outreach program of the Kappa Kappa Gamma Foundation. Guided tours are available by appointment. For information, call 614-228-6515 or click here.