When I first saw a picture of the bar area at The Brewer’s Art, a brewery located in Baltimore, Maryland, the elegant and decorative interiors of the influential Scottish architect and designer Robert Adam came to mind. Adam was born in 1728 to a family of architects. After spending five years traveling and studying throughout France and Italy on a ‘Grand Tour’, he returned to London and established his own practice with his brother James. Adam became one of the most important British architects working in the Neo-classical style. He not only designed houses, but also the entire interior decoration scheme and every object within the house. The period from 1755 to 1785 is sometimes called the Age of Adam, and as Bill Bryson notes:
[Adam] had an inescapable weakness for overdecoration. To walk into an Adam room is rather like walking into a large, overfrosted cake.
(Bill Bryson, At Home, p. 173 – 174). The bar at Brewer’s Art is perhaps not as ornate as Adam’s interiors, but the fireplace and door frame decorations are a sort of quiet homage to the designs of a legend.
If you have not guessed already, November’s installment of History & Hops features craft brewery The Brewer’s Art, a brewpub that has operated in a historic mansion in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore since 1996. They currently brew approximately 1,800 barrels of draft beer at the Baltimore location, while a partnership with Sly Fox Brewing Co. of Pottstown, PA produces another 5,000 barrels of packaged product. Most of their beer stays in the local area, primarily serving MD, VA, and DC with small quantities in PA and NJ. Founding partner Volker Stuart and brewer Victor Rini will be on site at the Heurich House Museum on Thursday, November 19, 2015 to serve Resurrection Beazly and St. Festivus at the event.
The Heurich House would not be the magnificent, unique, and utterly Victorian vision that it is today without the skills of the craftsmen and designers who worked with Christian and Mathilde. Perhaps the most visible, ornate and intricate work in the house was completed by the master carver August Grass and his workshop. Grass received the commission for the decorative woodwork and is responsible for the elaborately carved fireplace mantels throughout house and the suite of furniture in the dining room, including the monumental sideboard that still stands proudly.
Grass is a relatively unknown craftsman, and as such, not much information survives on him or his business. What is known is that he was born in Prussia in 1828 and later died in 1902 in Washington, D.C. He came to the United States in 1852 and married another Prussian, Sophia Frank, in 1859. By 1878, Grass moved his family and workshop to 1204 New Hampshire Avenue Northwest, which is just a few blocks from the Heurich’s house (Michael Grass, a descendant of August Grass, provided the personal information on August Grass. The information is from a profile of the Grass family in a book on families buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.). E.E. Barton’s 1884 Historical and Commercial Sketches of Washington and Environs noted that:
Grass employed ten to twelve first-class workmen and that, Fine cabinet ware of all kinds is made, a specialty being made of mantles and art furniture. The mantles and art furniture manufactured by this establishment are among the finest made in this country.
(p. 251 – 252).
If you remember one thing when visiting the Heurich House, remember to truly look Grass’s sideboard. You can’t miss it – it’s nearly fourteen feet high and arranged on three massive horizontal levels. It is richly carved and decorated with motifs associated with the Renaissance Revival style including dead game, bountiful harvests, and various architectural elements. Every surface is embellished with detail, from the cornice proudly displaying Christian’s initials to the lock plates that are fashioned as grotesque heads. Grass skipped no corners – literally – as each corner features a stylized leaf motif (as do the corners of each piece of furniture in the dining room suite). The sideboard is the center piece of the dining room. It built as a testament to Heurich’s heritage, wealth, status, and awareness of current interior fashion trends.
During the nineteenth-century the sideboard rapidly rose in status. It became the most important piece of furniture in the dining room, the prime exhibition piece, and pieces of monumental proportions and lavish design were created. This is a significant event because the sideboard was relatively new piece of furniture, only having been first invented in the late eighteenth-century by the frosty Robert Adam. The piece at the Heurich House is interesting because of its late date of creation (assuming it was built sometime between 1892 and 1984 when the house was under construction) and the prominent use of the Renaissance Revival style, which was largely out-of-fashion in 1890s England.
Just as previously established English interior trends lagged in gaining popularity in America (Thomas Chippendale first published The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director in 1754, which had immediate success in England and took a good six years to truly influence American craftsmen), English Victorian fashions enjoyed delayed and prolonged popularity in America. In contrast to England where the Renaissance Revival was most popular between 1840 and 1870, in America the style remained in favor until the end of the nineteenth-century. The peak of the Renaissance Revival style in England is perhaps best illustrated by the Fourdinois sideboard, which was exhibited at the 1851 London Great Exhibition and received the highest awards. The Fourdinois sideboard had had such an impact on American designers, that at the 1853 New York City Exhibition, more than half a dozen prominent firms featured smaller versions of the sideboard with a surprising profusion of carved fruits, vegetables, birds, and game. Additionally, most of the American furniture exhibited at the 1853 New York City Exhibition was carved in massive oak and walnut in the Renaissance Revival style.
After the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, the Renaissance Revival took on new strength in America with an emphasis on niches, shelves and small turned balusters for cabinets and over-mantels. This most likely was an outcome of the strong influence of the Englishman Charles Eastlake’s work Hints on Household Taste, which was first published in America in 1872. He argued for ornament to be equally decorative and functional, and his designs are characterized by functional, non-ostentatious forms with shallow carving, geometric designs and rows of turned spindles. Harriet Prescott Spofford’s Art Decoration Applied to Furniture, published in 1878, was also an influential publication and argued for interior decoration in accordance with Eastlake’s ideals and the Aesthetic Movement. Spofford’s publication, however, also advocated for the use of the Renaissance Revival and noted that there was ‘nothing more luxurious’ than the Renaissance style for interior decoration (Mayhew and Myers, A Documentary History of American Interiors, p. 213). Additionally, the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, an event that took place while the Heurich’s mansion was being built, emphasized conservative and traditional historical revival styles for house design such as the Colonial, Renaissance, and Rococo (Shireman, ‘The Rise of Christian Heurich and His Mansion’, p. 23). So despite the Renaissance Revival style being considered extremely outdated in 1890s Arts and Crafts England, the style was still favored in America (and probably viewed as a bit conservative since it was considered especially appropriate for the houses of the very rich).
The sideboard, however, is so much more than just a display of wealth and style. The sideboard was – and continues to be – a hallmark of the Heurich’s German heritage. Grass used German design books for his work, one of which was the publication ‘Graef’s Journal für Bau-und-Möbel-Tischler’ (Graef’s Journal for Furniture Builders and Carpenters) by August Graef. A complete collection of Graef’s designs published in 1853 reveals that August Graef was a cabinetmaker and business leader of the furniture factory of Mr. von Hagen, who had a workshop in Erfurt. Erfurt became a part of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1802, and it is most likely Grass trained from similar designs while in Prussia.
Considering the strong German tradition of cabinet furniture and carving, Grass is not unusual in continuing to use his sources and training received in Prussia while in America. Carvers played an important part in the decoration of furniture in Germany, and the characteristic form of two-tiered cupboard that evolved during the mid-fifteenth century lent itself particularly well to the embellishment of carved ornament. The large, flat-fronted press of the Gothic period gradually became more architectural in its conception and developed into the typical Fassadenschrank of the sixteenth and early seventeenth-century, with its massive structure and detailed Renaissance ornament (Thornton, ‘Review: German Furniture’, p. 545). During the nineteenth-century, the numerous revival styles found acceptance in Germany. The Renaissance Revival, in fact, was viewed as an expression of national ambition and associated with harmony and rebirth (History of Design: Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400 – 2000, ed. by Pat Kirkham and Susan Weber, p. 425). Grass’s sideboard harmonizes the strong German tradition of richly carved cabinet furniture with the nineteenth-century taste for the Renaissance Revival style.
One of the reasons I am so interested in furniture history and interior design is that any piece of furniture has the ability to reveal so much about its owners – where they came from, what they believed in, their status within society, and how they wished to be perceived. The sideboard at the Heurich House stands as tribute to the Heurich’s proud German heritage, high social status (or wish to be considered as such), knowledge of current fashions, and their wealth. It took the skill and imagination of the master craftsman August Grass to convey such a complex message so effortlessly within a single piece of furniture.
Hilary Strimple graduated with a B.A. in Art History from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio in 2012. After graduation, she started as a curatorial intern at the Heruich House Museum and was later hired as the Special Events Coordinator and Collections Manager. She also worked as the Administrative Assistant for Brent D. Glass LLC, a museum and history consulting business lead by Dr. Brent Glass, Director Emeritus of The Smithsonian Museum of American History. This past year, she attended graduate school at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, England, pursing a master’s degree in Fine and Decorative Art. Her master’s thesis discussed the nineteenth-century fashion of monumental sideboards and A.W.N. Pugin’s involvement in the fashion trend. The sideboard at the Heurich House was a case study for the thesis. After completing her master’s course this past September, she has moved back to the United States and now works for Alex Cooper Auctioneers as the Auction Coordinator.
This post is an abridged portion of a chapter of a master’s thesis. For full text citations, please contact the museum.
Kirkham, Pat and Susan Weber, ed., History of Design: Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400 – 2000 (New York: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, 2013)
Madigan, Mary Jean Smith, ‘The Influence of Charles Locke Eastlake on American Furniture Manufacture, 1870 – 1890’, Winterthur Portfolio, 10, (1975), in http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180557 [accessed 16 July 2015]
Mayhew, Edgar de N. and Minor Myers, jr., A Documentary History of American Interiors: From the Colonial Era to 1915 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980)
Riley, Noël, The Elements of Design: The Development of Design and Stylistic Elements from the Renaissance to the Postmodern Era (London: Mitchell Beazley, Octopus Publishing Group, 2003)
Riley, Noël, World Furniture (London: 1989, Spring Books, first published 1980 by Octopus Books Limited)
Shireman, Candace, ‘The Rise of Christian Heurich and His Mansion’, Washington History: Magazine of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., 5 (1993)
Shireman, Candace , ‘The Rise of Christian Heurich’s Mansion: A Study of the Interior Decoration and Furnishings of the Columbia Historical Society’s Christian Heurich Mansion’ (unpublished master’s thesis, George Washington University, 1989)
Thornton, Peter, ‘Review: German Furniture’, The Burlington Magazine, 112, (1970) in http://www.jstor.org/stable/876406 [accessed 25 July 2015]