Monday, July 24, 2017

A Vintage Mahogany Breakfront in Gray

I love a rainy day like this. After almost a week straight of nauseously humid days, with the temperatures squatting in the low 90s, today is a blessed respite. Often this time of year in Connecticut, the air will cling to that humidity for weeks on end, like a toddler with a security blanket, it gets to the point you forget entirely what it's like to breath air that's not the texture of velvet, or walk up the stairs without breaking into a sticky sweat. Then one day, like divine magic, the humidity will be gone in an instant, and there's something of Autumn around the crisp cool edges of dusk and dawn. These are the perfect days to hole up on a faded vintage settee, on an enclosed porch, at some lonely lake house, or moldering summer estate in Sag Harbor, listen to the whispering drizzle, and read a good ghost story or ten.
        Who has time to sit around reading all day, though? Not me, I'll be painting dining chairs in the basement as soon as I finish this blog post. But maybe you've got the time, if so, here's a ghost story for your rainy Monday morning (settee and Sag Harbor estate not required but highly recommended).
         Before I worked at Liverant Antiques, I spent three years and some change as the Visitor Services Manager at the Harriet Beecher Store Center in Hartford, Connecticut. It's a classic historic house museum; Stowe's Victorian Gothic cottage was built in 1871, the carriage house cum Visitor Center, my domain, was built in 1873, and on the corner of the property stands the massive Katherine Seymour Day house, built in the mid 1880s.

          It was a chilly, damp weekday in mid March, the kind that makes your knuckles and knees ache. All told, I think we'd sent a whopping total of one tour with one visitor through Harriet's house.  It was before the clocks 'spring forward' for the season so it was nearing dark before closing and the deep cloud cover and persistent drizzle didn't improve the ambient lighting. Seated at the front desk in the gift shop, surrounded by stacks and shelves of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe magnets, and commemorative spoons, I made the best use of the remaining few minutes of the work day by staring off into the middle distance, eyes glazed, and dreaming of summer, or the weekend, or Robert Pattinson (this was ten years ago, my tastes have since improved). I'd sent my two remaining tour guides in to close Harriet's house for the night, which involved switching off lights, switching others on, shutting some doors, and opening yet others, apparently all to ensure the house burned in a particular manner were that a blaze took it in the night... or to set up some specifically encouraged path for robbers who managed to ninja sneak past the security system to steal tired velvet upholstered settees and ugly foxed lithographs.

         With the tour guides in the house, I was now alone in the 1872 carriage house. Directly above me was a lofty attic space used as merchandise and junk storage of the type only museums seem to accumulate, because everyone should save the posters from the 1994 mother daughter tea fundraiser...just in case. Above me and to the right was the guide break room complete with crappy folding table and chairs, microwave and multiple boxes and crates of books, educational material, and related. Downstairs, in the giftshop, on my desk was an old handset landline phone that could dial out but could also, with the press of an aptly labeled 'guide room' button reach the room above on speakerphone, so that I might call up and announce a pending tour, or yell at them, or sing, though I don't think I ever did sing to the guides up there.

     My steely concentration on absolutely nothing was suddenly broken by the most disconcerting racket coming from the guide break room. It sounded very much like a person of considerable girth lifting heavy objects carrying them to the other side of the room, and then unceremoniously dumping them out, stomping the entire time. This continued for perhaps thirty seconds and I recall the thought that drifted up through my confusion and irritation was "that sounds URGENT" as if the person was doing whatever it was they were doing as fast as possible. Anyway I was pissed, and no one should have been up there.

        I called up, on speaker phone, and said something like "What the hell are you doing?!" and no one answered so I went with the classic fall back of "Hello? HelllOOO?! Helloooo.....?.....hello?" And then my voice died in my throat as I listened. I could hear him/her/it moving clearly through the speaker phone, picking things up, shoving things, dropping things, then I heard it come up to the desk where the phone sat. I could hear it breathing, breathing hard and moving things on the desk, papers, maybe even the phone base. It was at that moment that I realized that not only had I seen both my tour guides leave to close the adjacent house, confirming that I was indeed alone in the building, but that I could see all unlocked doors from my seat, and no one had come in since their departure.

         I immediately radioed our aged but well meaning security guard Rod, who happened to be standing just outside the front door of the carriage house in the misty yuckness of the evening (God knows why he wasn't inside where it was much warmer). He went straight up the stairs upon my call. I watched him march up the first set of stairs and then listened as he turned at the landing and tentatively crept up the remaining half dozen. I held my breath, waiting for him to open the door at the top, and then heard no more sounds. "Rod? whats up there? Rod WHO's up there????"

        But there was no one. He came back down the stairs looking at me a bit owlishly as I had insisted there was SOMEONE up there. The room had been empty and nothing had been touched, save a pile of freshly crumpled paper in the center of the table. At this point my guides, having heard the ruckus on the radio, returned from closing the house. They swore up and down that when they'd left nothing had been amiss, that they had not crumpled the paper. There had been a stack of neat new paper on the center of the table when they'd gone to close up.  I won't lie. I was shaken by it. I grew up in old houses and have worked in the historical field my entire adult life, so I've encountered a few odd and inexplicable things over the years... but this was much scarier.

        After we'd finished closing up the Visitor Center for the day, I knew I would be returning to an empty house and that thought was too much to bear. I instead sat in the parking lot of the local Stop n Shop until my husband Brian finished work. I have no idea what I heard up in that room, who walked up to the phone and was so frantically moving unseen objects, but I know with absolute certainty that it was not good and that is was angry. The oral history that had passed down from guide to guide for generations of museum employees spoke of a young man, a stable hand, who had hanged himself in the building at the end of 19th century... but most museums have a story like that, and it's likely not true. Whatever it was, I sincerely hope I don't meet it again.

And on to the furniture- I scored this amazing, if a bit tattered, vintage mahogany breakfront from the Newington Goodwill about a month ago.  I adore the arched top, and the hidden fitted desk in the top drawer. It had been used and abused, but still had some mileage left in her yet, and at $15, how could I say no!
      I refinished the piece custom for a client, and she opted for Benjamin Moore's Silver Mink for the exterior and Linen White for the interior. We, of course, kept the original hardware, which is beyond perfect for the piece, and left it in its current state, gently patinated after seventy or so years.


  1. I love that piece of furniture (and how knowledgeable you are about all furniture) but more than that, I love the story you told! How scary! I don't know that I would have been able to go back after that happened.

  2. Kate, I absolutely LOVE this breakfront in silver mink !! Maybe, if I eventually move, I will ask if you have any more similar pieces. Beautiful accomplishment by you! Sue