The Loyalist House

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ruth Flewelling Lesbirel finds that a Canadian historic house is perfect inspiration for her miniature projects

What a treat for a miniaturist to have great inspiration for historical furniture and room settings almost in my own backyard!  I'm really fortunate to live near Saint John, NB, Canada, where the "Loyalist House" resides.  It's a Georgian home where six generations of the Merritt Family once lived, following their arrival in the area as exiles of the American Revolutionary War.  With the use of the furniture that these generations so carefully preserved, the house has been restored to the time when it was first built in 1810.  So often we don't appreciate such opportunities and although I walked by Loyalist House to go to work each day for many years, it was some time before I even visited there.  Once I began learning more about the building, its furnishings, and its inhabitants, it wasn't long before I became a part time tour guide.  Since miniatures were already an important part of my life, I soon began thinking about recreating some of these pieces in 1:12 scale.

House tours

Every autumn several cruise ships from England dock just down the street from this historic home and come for tours.  Other delegates from Europe and the rest of the world often meet at our Trade and Convention Centre, with side trips to Loyalist House.  Although these visitors may be privileged to have far older buildings nearby their homes, they still say they enjoy the tours very much, commenting frequently on the width and length of the planks of the original pine floorboards and the extensive Adam-style millwork in the cornices, casings, and chair rails.  The floorboards, some of which are 20 feet long and more than a foot wide, were from virgin forest at that time and have remained straight and flat for more than 200 years now!  Another popular feature is the wide, curving main staircase in the foyer, with its deep stair treads and low risers, enabling an easy climb and a graceful descent.

Soon after the house was built, the streets on both sides were lowered to make it easier for pedestrians and horses.  It is for this reason that the slate bedrock is exposed under the foundation on one side and why on the other side, the front door is approached via the Quaker stairs up from the street.  The gentlemen ascended on one side, while the ladies ascended the other, allowing them to raise their skirts for a safe climb without exposing their ankles to the gentlemen's view!  The front door has its original fanlight, sidelights, and brass locks, and in general, light floods into the house from its many large windows on each side.


The main floor of Loyalist House features high-ceilinged, large double parlours, one for the ladies and one for the gentlemen.  The Merritts very much enjoyed entertaining.  There is also an ample dining room with a built-in china cabinet, a butler's pantry, store room, and a large working kitchen, with a cold cellar below it.  The curved doors under the foyer's main staircase at first appear to be part of the paneling.  They lead instead to a back hallway, with servants' stairs and a door to the outside kitchen garden.  Loyalist House was once called "the house on the hill", since the city itself began along the shoreline below.  Although the city grew up around the house in successive generations, its location is partly responsible for why it survived the great fire of 1877, which claimed so many of Saint John's beautiful wooden homes, theatres, and businesses.  The other reason was that Mr. Merritt instructed the children and servants to soak quilts and blankets and hang them out the many windows, thus extinguishing sparks and saving their home.

The second floor has a large sewing area at the top of the stairs, with a curved back wall and lots of light.  The nursery, master bedroom, and a guest room are currently on display.  The bedrooms adjoin with large, hinged double doors in an archway between them.  The attic retains its original wallpaper and had three servants' rooms and a store room.  It is not open to the public for safety reasons.


The furniture within the house was of the highest quality of wood and craftsmanship.  Several pieces, like the Lawrence hanging cradle, are featured in such books as "Cabinet Makers of the Eastern Seaboard".  Most pieces were made by immigrant cabinet makers from England and Scotland, while other pieces came from the United States.  They are mainly fashioned of mahogany which was imported or sometimes found as ships' ballast!  The best thing for a miniaturist about treasure houses like Loyalist House is that these pieces of history can be viewed "up close", studied, photographed, and measured, so that accurate drawings can be easily made.

In 1959, Loyalist House was acquired by the New Brunswick Historical Society, who carried out the restoration.  Extensive consultations with a renowned conservator resulted in the choice of authentic reproduction wallpapers, draperies, and carpets to replace those worn beyond further use.  This house is unique in that all of the furnishings belonged to a single family.  When things became outdated they merely stored them away in the carriage house or attic, or in the case of the kitchen wares, within the large fireplace opening before covering it over.  What a find to open the fireplace and see all the copper, brass, and iron pots and utensils still there!  Another major find was in the upstairs wood box.  Loyalist House originally had 8 working fireplaces (it's cold in Canadian winters!) so the servants' back stairs led to a large wood box which supplied the four bedrooms on that floor.  When the Historical Society was cleaning out this box, they found at the bottom of it the deed to the house as well as many of the receipts for the furniture, noting the maker, material, date of purchase, and the price!


Every old house has so many wonderful stories that are so worth investigating!  They enrich our lives, even if we don't choose to make every piece of furniture in miniature.  Take a look at the Loyalist House website to see more of the pieces that have inspired me: and take the virtual tour at the bottom of the home page.  Among the furnishings, you will see more than 30 pieces that have appeared as projects in The Dolls' House magazine 


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