In the mid-1880s Julia Finney Monroe (1837-1930), the “First Lady of Oberlin,” who had recently returned from 10 years in the nation’s capital, redecorated her formal front parlor in keeping with the tastes at the height of fashion and in her signature color, blue. There is only one known photo of the very private Julia, so being able to recreate the ambiance of her inner sanctum in the Monroe House of the Oberlin Heritage Center has required much sleuthing. Julia’s purchases are documented in receipts from merchants and suppliers with the details of color and texture told in family memories.
Today the parlor at the Monroe House at the Oberlin Heritage Center is the starting point for tours. The Oberlin Heritage Center’s Collections Committee volunteers and staff refurbished the parlor in stages, in keeping with extensive research on Julia’s tastes. Phases of the project included removing inappropriate 1960s shag carpeting and wallpaper, repainting, installing reproduction 1880s aesthetic movement wallpaper frieze and borders, a “bamboo” picture rail, curtains, new period-appropriate carpeting and lighting, and a locally designed and crafted wood chair rail. The results are stunning and dramatic!
Through almost magically well-timed good luck, the Oberlin Heritage Center was given several of the original handsome dark blue fireplace surround tiles which Julia added along with the present mantle. Decades ago, when the house was being renovated after being moved to prevent its demolition, the original tiles were removed and replaced. One wise woman rescued the least damaged of these stunning tiles from a trash bin and has now returned them to Julia’s home.
The Oberlin Heritage Center had Julia’s blue tiles reproduced in a limited edition by Starbuck Goldner in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which specializes in museum quality handcrafted reproduction tiles. A prototype was created and a complicated pattern and glaze matching process was undertaken before the reproduction tiles were produced. Starbuck Goldner’s other reproduction tile projects include Carpenter’s Hall Independence Mall (Philadelphia), the Fox Theater (Atlanta), and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (New York).
Many people contributed many hours of time and talent to this project, and several generous donors supplied partial funding. Oberlin Heritage Center Collections Committee members Paul Arnold, Scott Broadwell, Rob Calhoun, Bert Latran, Louise Richards, Dina Schoonmaker, Jim Underwood, and Anne Wardwell logged many volunteer hours on this project, as did Prue and Pete Richards, and Deloris Bohn. Doren Harley (Woodreams) designed and crafted the wood chair rail to match the molding profile on the 1880s wood mantle in the room. Scott Broadwell (Broadwell Painting) contributed many hours in painting and wallpapering as did Tim Cowling (Creative Carpentry), who installed the picture rail and chair rail and helped with the wallpapering.
Stop in and take a peek at the Monroe parlor any Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Or, better yet, learn more of the story by coming on a guided tour of the Oberlin Heritage Center any Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday at 10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. The Monroe House is located at 73 ½ S. Professor Street, behind the Oberlin College Conservatory’s new Kohl Jazz Center.