From the Johns Hopkins University Museums’ website: As teaching museums of a world-renowned university, the Johns Hopkins University Museums contribute to the advancement of scholarship and museum practice by helping to train future art historians, historic preservationists, and museum professionals. They provide curricular support to faculty through their collections, exhibitions, and programs; and offer credit-bearing courses and internships to help meet the university’s academic mission. The museums welcome members of the public to experience their collections and special exhibitions, as well as to enjoy their tours, lectures, and other programs.
One of the Johns Hopkins University Museums referred to above is Homewood Museum, which sits on JHU’s main campus in Baltimore. Currently, the house sports simple holiday touches such as arrangements of evergreen, berries, pine cones, and candles.
The docent who led me on a tour imparted this story to me: Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence, set up his son Charles Jr. in Baltimore. Charles Jr. and his wife used Homewood as their summer home, which they fashioned so as to show off their great wealth, which was all inherited from Charles Sr. Charles Jr. suffered from alcoholism, particularly after the deaths of two infant sons, and it eventually broke the family apart. Charles Sr. set up the wife and daughters in their own, “proper” house in Pennsylvania, and she took half the furniture with her. Fifteen-year-old Charles III stayed behind to take care of his alcoholic father, who sold much of the remaining furniture in order to acquire more drink.
Once Johns Hopkins University set up shop in the area, Homewood became an administrative building for the school. JHU student and, later, benefactor Robert Merrick was inspired by the house and its potential as a museum. Merrick bequeathed to JHU the money to buy furniture identical to everything the Carrolls had, and these purchases (along with some objects that were definitely owned by the Carrolls) adorn the house museum today.
Countless times, the tour guide reverently referred to Charles Sr. as “the signer.” He also called Charles Sr. “Papa,” as in, “Oh, but Papa’s paying for everything!” In one room, a book sat on a table, open to a page signed “Charles Carroll Jr.” The tour guide stated that it was easy to acquire that book – but that if it had been signed “Charles Carroll,” there would have been much greater demand for it.
Overall, the tour painted a picture of a man who lived off – and showed off – wealth that he never worked for, and whose drinking caused suffering for himself and his family at a time when treatment was not available. Unlike the tours I took at Frederick Douglass House, Mary McLeod Bethune House, and Woodrow Wilson House, this tour did not celebrate the virtues and contributions of the house’s former tenant.
Do all historic house museums pay homage to someone great who lived there? No – see Suratt House as an example. The National Register of Historic Places lists detailed criteria for a property being listed; association with “with the lives of persons significant in our past” is one possible, but not required, reason for inclusion. In fact, a property can be listed because of events, or people, or architecture, or the potential to “yield information important in history or prehistory.”
Aside from the references to “the signer,” this visit was not a celebration of a historical figure’s legacy. (There are other museums devoted to the signer himself.) Instead, the house offers to posterity itself and its contents: arsenic drapes to protect books from bugs, detailed wood carvings on the fireplaces, a good deal of Baltimore furniture. And of course there is the privy, which still stands nearby, among other JHU buildings.
The takeaway message was neither a commemoration nor condemnation of Charles Carroll Jr., but instead, a glimpse of how the wealthy lived in the early 19th century, with detailed descriptions of where objects came from, how they were made, and why they were chosen. If the hard work of any dwellers was honored here, it would be that of the servants and slaves who dutifully removed multiple table clothes and reset the table all in the course of one meal, cleaned chamberpots, and worked in the field.
Though it is a small house, I recommend allowing 60-90 minutes for the very thorough tour. The tour will be especially appealing to people interested in the history of architecture and the decorative arts.