The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, 1939, Kansas City, Missouri
When I was eight years old and still an only child, my parents and I spent many Sunday afternoons at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now called the Nelson Atkins Museum) in Kansas City strolling through the cool marble halls, looking this way and that at the paintings.
Not that my parents had any particular interest in art, but it was a pleasant place to be and it was (and still is) free—an important consideration in those days.
I don’t remember a single painting, But what I do remember with the utmost clarity are the period rooms. They were arranged in chronological order in a recessed area off a main hall, beginning with a colonial keeping room, followed by a bedroom, which I now know was from an antebellum Southern mansion.
I knew these were supposed to be rooms where real people once lived and I was absolutely enthralled. I tried to imagine the child who slept in the bed with the ruffled roof—a bed so high off the floor that you needed little steps to get into it. But I just couldn’t do it. It was like a magic trick I began well but kept fumbling. I wanted to climb under the ropes and get into that bed to see what it was like. But of course I didn’t dare.
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Fast forward over half a century. Recently retired, Herb and I had moved to New York City where like all newcomers we set out to visit all the tourist attractions. One day we happened on the Merchant’s House Museum, an urban row house constructed in 1832 which miraculously still existed complete with the family’s original furniture and many personal possessions.
And this time the magic worked!
I stepped through the front door—not into a room but into an entire house where real people lived over 100 years ago! And this time the magic worked. I could easily imagine the Tredwell family in those rooms because by that time I had become acquainted with the Victorian era through my study of history and literature. I asked if there was a book I could buy that would tell me more. I was disappointed to learn there was not.
But my childhood passion had suddenly been rekindled, and I knew this was where I was meant to spend my newly acquired free time. So I volunteered and for the next 20 years I moved among those rooms, conducting tours, training the guides, and eventually writing the book I had wanted to buy on that first visit. (See sidebar.)
And yes, from time to time I was tempted to lie down in that big bed, but I never did for fear it might collapse. I confess, however, to once sitting on the sofa, just to see what it was like.