Victoria Mansion, also known as the Morse-Libby House or Morse-Libby Mansion, is a landmark example of American residential architecture. The brownstone exterior, elaborate interior design, opulent furnishings and early technological conveniences provide a detailed portrait of lavish living in nineteenth-century America.
During the colonial era, New England’s economy grew steadily despite the lack of a staple crop that could be exported. All the provinces, and many towns as well, tried to foster economic growth by subsidizing projects that improved the infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, inns, and ferries. Hard work and entrepreneurship characterized the region.
America grew and prospered with the Industrial Revolution, making possible the transition to an urban nation with high finance and advanced managerial skills. Railroads opened up remote areas, drastically cutting the cost of moving freight as well as passengers, and stimulating new industries. They greatly increased the importance of cities such as Atlanta, Billings, Chicago, and Dallas. New England would see growth in the miles of railroads from 2,507 in 1850 to 3,660 in 1860.
So what did America do with its new found wealth? Technology had not reached the level where gadgets to make life easier were all the rage. The invention of the automobile was still 30 years away, so wealthy Americans traveled and they built mansions. They wanted to live like the royal family in England. This era in history is known as the Victorian Era.
Architects developed several styles from the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1839 to her death in 1901. The western world saw relatively simple styles of architecture that reflected styles of the past, such as Greek Revival (1825 – 1850) and a return to Renaissance forms. After the Civil War and as a result of a growing trend towards industrialism, Victorian architecture tended toward more complicated and elaborate designs. Prominent styles during this later period included Italianate (1840 – 1890).
Italianate style homes and buildings drew from the style of country villas in the old world. It was popularized in America by Andrew Jackson Downing, and quickly became so popular that it overshadowed other styles of its day. Italianate architecture featured an asymmetrical floor plan. Houses in this style were usually shaped in rectangular sections to imitate the look of an Italian villa, and incorporated such decorative features as wings, towers, flat roof lines, corniced eaves, angled bay windows, Corinthian-columned porches, and a square tower or cupola.
A wealthy native of Maine named Ruggles Sylvester Morse made his fortune as the proprietor of luxury hotels in New Orleans during the 1850s. His experience as a hotelier shaped his taste in design, and when the time came to build a summer home, he sought out some of the nation’s leading designers. Morse selected Henry Austin of New Haven, Connecticut. Thus began the creation of the famous Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine.
The building is recognized as one of the finest and least-altered examples of a large Italianate Villa-styled brick and brownstone house in the United States. Its distinctive asymmetric form includes a four-story tower, overhanging eaves, verandas, and ornate windows. Gustave Herter created the interiors in a range of styles. More than ninety percent of the original contents survive, including Herter furniture, elaborate wall paintings, artworks, carpets, gas lighting fixtures, stained glass, porcelain, silver, and glassware. The house has twin sinks in the guest bedroom on the second floor, a Turkish smoking room, carved marble fireplaces and a flying staircase. Morse had features incorporated into the house familiar to him from his luxury hotels including the soaring entryway and wall-to-wall carpeting. In its supporting technology, the house was remarkably advanced for the time, with central heating, gas lighting, hot and cold running water, and a servant call system. Gutters directing rainwater into an enormous tank on the third floor provided the water. It only took 2 years to build.
Ruggles Morse died in 1893. In 1894, the house and its contents were sold to Joseph Ralph Libby, a Portland merchant. The Libby family occupied the house for over thirty more years without making significant changes to it. It is now a museum. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971. Each holiday season, local designers showcase their talents by transforming the Mansion’s interiors with extravagant decorations.