I turned the doorknob of the fanlighted side door of the elegant building at 221 East Broadway in Granville, and a lady rushed up to greet us as we walked in. “Are you here for a tour?,” she asked excitedly, then hurried to the foot of the stairs and called for a backup docent.
She scampered back to a group of several other visitors in the next room who were standing spellbound as they turned little sticks topped with paper circles. An equally enthusiastic guide whisked us through to the front hall, and our tour began.
Standing underneath a cobalt blue-and-white glass light fixture at the foot of a curving staircase following the form of William Hogarth’s Line of Beauty, we discovered that we were in a home built by Alfred Avery in 1842. Today, the home is considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the nation. The historic house museum is furnished with 18th and 19th century decorative arts acquired by the original owners, as well as collectors.
Three years after Avery built his 27-room house, he sold it to his cousin, Sylvester Spelman, a local doctor. The home remained a private residence until 1903, when a Denison University fraternity acquired it. In 1956, Robbins Hunter, Jr., an antiques aficionado, made it his home until his death in 1979. His will provided for his home to become the Robbins Hunter Museum in 1981.
One room to the front of the house served as Dr. Spelman’s office, with its own exterior door for patients to use. Here, we learned about the revolutionary whale oil lamp, with a round wick and round chimney that fostered a flame that burned nine times brighter than a candle. We also heard about the horrors of patent medicine, those potent, powerful concoctions of turpentine, camphor, ammonia, cloves, sassafras and at least 50 percent alcohol.
“Can you see Dr. Spelman talking with a patient as they sit in these chairs? I can!,” our guide exclaimed.
In the parlor, we got the message that Dr. Spelman wanted to tell us loud and clear. Expensive lamps, a beautiful clock made in Lancaster, Ohio and a rug woven in England were all designed to reveal how wealthy and accomplished his family was to visitors who attended teas, parties and weddings in this room.
“Can you see the Spelmans and their guests singing around the Christmas tree? I can!,” our guide exclaimed.
The enthusiasm that the docents had for this terrific place was contagious. Before long, I was as hyped up as they were. What did it was what I saw in the ladies’ parlor.
In this bright room, Mrs. Spelman and her daughter entertained their friends over tea and needlework. As I surveyed my surroundings, I noticed several handwork projects that made my fingers itch to make some myself.
A penwiper in the form of a beaded butterfly rested on the desk in front of the window. A watch pocket intended to hang beside a bed and keep a watch safe overnight sat beside a compact fashioned from shells and a pair of small embroidered felt shoes. All were made from actual patterns printed in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular women’s magazine that was a fixture in the Victorian-era home. Since our guide was the creator of these wonderful things, out came pictures of more sensational projects from Godey’s pages. Toothpick holders made from lobster claws! Ornamental stars made from fish scales!
I dragged myself away, pausing to gasp over a Gothic Revival Berlinwork child’s chair, and made my way to the sitting room, where the Spelmans congregated to read aloud from classics like Gulliver’s Travels, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Christmas Carol and The Scarlet Letter.
“Can you hear them reading these books to each other? Can you see them? I can!,” our guide exclaimed.
What I saw were those curious little sticks topped with paper circles. Thaumatropes! Based on the scientific principle of the persistence of vision, a disk with a picture on each side is attached to the stick. When the stick is twirled quickly between the fingers, the two pictures appear to blend together into one.
Next, I spotted a stereoscope, which transforms a pair of separate images depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene into one three-dimensional image. And then…a magic lantern! Used to project scenes drawn by hand on small glass plates known as lantern slides, a magic lantern casts the enlarged image on a flat surface. I’ve loved those things ever since discovering a collection of hand-tinted lantern slides of American gardens at the Library of Congress. Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston used them to illustrate the lectures that she gave to garden club members, museum audiences and horticultural societies from 1915 through the 1930s. Click here to see them.
Still hyperventilating over thaumatropes and lantern slides, we collected ourselves enough to move to the next stop on our tour: the Octagon Room. Robbins Hunter thought that every Greek Revival house needed one of these, and he outdid himself on it.
The room features a stained glass window from a church in Gambier, gilded brackets from a Mount Vernon home, and Palladian windows that began life at the Maramor Restaurant in Columbus. It appears as it might have been when Mr. Hunter lived here. A banjo clock and Ohio-made side chairs complement a box of items he purchased at auction that rests on his work table, alongside auction catalogues and other artifacts of his trade. A Harris Tweed hat like he always wore hangs on the coat rack with his umbrella.
Remembering to take some deep, calming breaths, I moved to the museum’s special events room. There, I found a watercolor that one of my heroes, Ralph Fanning, an Ohio State University history professor, painted of the home in 1944.
As I tried to pull myself together, our guide described the big plans under way outside. The museum is in the midst of creating three historic gardens representing three periods of significance to the house. It includes a Greek Revival performance pavilion, as well as 5,000 daffodils, so that it can become a sanctioned American Daffodil Society display garden.
“What time is it?,” our guide suddenly asked. “When it’s 3:oo, we’ve got to get outside!”
I started hyperventilating again as we scurried out the door. This is what I had come to see.
On the west exterior wall of the museum, above the side door, you’ll find the only monument in the United States to America’s first female presidential candidate. A hand-carved statue of Victoria Woodhull glides out of the tower of a fabulous restored clock on the side of the museum’s building every hour, on the hour, from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. After the clock rings, the Festive Day organ processional, composed by Dan Mitchell in 2013, announces Victoria’s appearance.
“Celebrating Victoria, The First Woman to Run for President,” the museum’s special exhibit for 2016, traces Victoria’s life.
Born in the Licking County, Ohio community of Homer on September 23, 1838, the seventh of Buckman and Roxanna Claflin’s ten children had a rocky start in life, despite being named for the newly crowned Queen Victoria. The family’s scant supply of money came from performing odd jobs, telling fortunes and selling a potent mixture of alcohol, laudanum, herbs and molasses called “Life Elixir.” In 1847, Mr. Claflin insured a gristmill that he owned, but never operated, which then mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground. Not long after, he disappeared, and his Homer neighbors organized a fundraiser so that the rest of the family would also disappear.
Before Victoria turned 16, she married Dr. ChanningWoodhull. Two more husbands followed. In 1868, she and her sister, Tennessee, moved to New York City, where they told fortunes and pushed magnetic healing. One of their customers was Cornelius Vanderbilt, who gave them enough money to start a stockbrokerage firm. They also began their own magazine, in which they called for equal rights for women. Victoria’s zeal for women’s suffrage and equal rights led her to run for president in 1872 with abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She lost the election to Ulysses S. Grant. In 1877, she moved to England and spent the rest of her life there until she died in 1927.
While music from Song of the Suffragettes, a CD from Smithsonian Folkways, played, we discovered information about Victoria’s presidential campaign platform, read newspaper articles about her, and scanned her biographies, including The Terrible Siren, published a year after her death, and more recent works like Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, by Barbara Goldsmith, and The Renegade Queen, a new work of historical fiction by Eva Flynn.
Before we left, we collected our complimentary “Celebrating Victoria” button…
Special exhibit programming taking place at the museum includes “To Judge Her By Her Heart: Victoria C. Woodhull,” on Thursday, May 12 at 7:00 pm, and “The Dilemma of Sex: The Free Love Debate Within Victoria Woodhull’s Writings,” on Thursday, October 6 at 7:00 pm.
The Robbins Hunter Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 1:00 to 4:00 pm. Admission is free. It offers an annual antiques show in September, followed by December open houses for the public to admire its holiday decorations.