Dressing Philadelphia’s Finest Furniture: Upholstered, Covered and Hung

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tuesday, September 9, 2014Mini-exhibit: 7:30pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum

Soon after their marriage in March, 1805, Philadelphians William and Mary Willcocks Waln retained British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820) to design and build a new style mansion at the corner of Seventh and Chestnut Streets. After three years of construction, Latrobe began to design the furniture and the painted wall ornament for the drawing room — the social center of the house. The drawing room furniture, all that is left of the house that was razed in 1843, embodies the aspirations of its designer and the merchant who commissioned the furniture.

While the Walns’ furniture has long been admired for its sleek profiles and lavishly painted surfaces, the upholstery was also shockingly innovative. The Walns’ drawing room furniture has been the subject of a five-year examination, analysis and conservation treatment by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Documentary research has utilized period design books to complement the physical evidence left on the chairs. The history of upholstery and upholsterers in Philadelphia also helped provide information for reupholstering the Waln family chairs. Ms Kirtley will focus on the Waln furniture’s upholstery, the most crucial element of a room’s design for 18th and early 19th century Philadelphia patrons.

Dolley Madison, formerly a Philadelphian, was so smitten with Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s growing — and glowing — reputation that she retained him to refurbish the President’s House for her. When the Madisons’ inaugurated their drawing room on New Year’s Day of 1810, Washington society was enthralled by the glamorous new style that established the White House as a fashion setter, as well as the seat of power.

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