BY JAMES MEROLLA
COWESETT. – Where else in Rhode Island can a child hold Roger Williams’ actual shoe buckle? Or a sword used by a French Huguenot that dates back to 1414?
Or see colossal 1850s vases that were gifts to the same family from the King of Siam – the same king who wanted to open his country to the West, made famous by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I?” Or see the original house and yacht china (yes, yacht china) still stacked in the pantry?
And get a tour by the living descendant of that same family who still lives in her amazing museum home?
The Answer to the above
There is only one place, the Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum on a 28-acre hill off Post Road.
Tours are by appointment only, but don’t worry, they are seven days a week, offered by the three live-in stewards of what has rightly been called the most authentic Victorian mansion in New England, in many respects a home superior in its authenticity to even the Bellevue Avenue mansions of Newport.
Anne D. Holst, fourth generation descendant from the Slaters of Slaterville (and traceable to Roger Williams himself) and Christine and Wayne Cabral occupy, maintain, clean, polish, buff, repair, improve, keep up, exhibit and show off their magnificent estate which sits atop the most open land this side of the rolling hills of County Cork.
“We live in the house,” said Holst. “Most small museums can only be open one or two days a week. But, we are always here. If someone wants to come at seven o’clock in the morning, we are up at seven o’clock., or at eight at night, we can accommodate that, too.”
“The focus of the museum is the architecture and its many assets,” said Wayne Cabral, who is director of the museum and its 27 rooms. “But it is still a family home.”
What begins in 1872, built by William Smith Slater for his daughter, Elizabeth Ives Slater on her marriage to Alfred Augustus Reed, Jr., has remained in the same family since its erection, passing from female to female until reaching Holst, the current owner. The lineage can be traced to several notable state and regional figures.
General William Walker, the architect who also designed the Cranston Street and Pawtucket Armories and Warwick City Hall, designed the home. Local artisans of the highest skill were brought in to carve the woodwork. The McPherson Companies of Boston painted the frescos. “This High Victorian design was done in this style to only four other homes in New England,” added Holst.
In addition to the amazing architecture and interior of the house, vast collections of textiles, porcelain, carriages, silks, original paper, art and so much more fill the property. It is a literal leap back into the Victorian Age.
At the impossible price of just $37,000 (in 1870s dollars), the mansion took 18 months to build. At the outrageous price of $100,000, it took a whopping 54 months to furnish, Holst said. “We have all the original bills,” smiled Holst.
“To be perfectly blunt, the family was a bunch of pack rats,” laughed Holst. “They amassed 150 years of assorted junk, or, rather, collectibles. After all, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”
Except, in this case, it is all antique treasure. How impressive? A student from Corcoran College at the Smithsonian recently completed her senior thesis on a single room called The Egyptian Room, which is about to be published in Victorian Magazine.
The ceilings are 13-feet high on the first floor, 12-feet high on the second floor, 11-feet high on the third floor and even nine-feet high in the basement.
The original curtains, more than a century old, adorn many of the windows. There are World War II Blackout Shades in the Egyptian Room. “Of course, you have to explain what a World War II Blackout was to visitors,” said Holst of the impossibly young and occasionally uninitiated guests.
“The history here is not only family history, but it gives a greater understanding of Rhode Island history,” said Wayne Cabral. Anne Holst descended from state founder Roger Williams and Samuel and John Slater (think Slatersville with their mills all over New England) and Phillip and Zachariah Allen (think Allendale Mills).
“We are striving to convince the city of Warwick of the importance of this place,” admonished Holst.
Because they have only existed for a decade as a museum (and a non-profit for less than seven years), the three stewards have not been able to procure substantial grants in an historical vein. They are currently reaching out to get elementary schools to visit, but many schools are cutting back on field trips, due to wilting municipal economies. The future lies in such groups and grants.
They also plan to improve their Carriage Museum on the grounds through October, where original Gypsy wagons and authentic horse-drawn carts await riders. These vehicles sit in the 1906 building erected after the original stable burned to the ground.
The family could have used Ann Holst’s mother for that blaze, but she wouldn’t be born for another three years. You see, it is generally believed that Holst’s matriarch, Anne Crawford Allen, was the very first female Fire Chief in the world. That’s right, the world.
“We still have her 1928 Dodge-Graham (fire truck),” said her proud daughter. She also was one of the first female pilots in Rhode Island and was one of the original “99,” the first 99 women who flew planes after recruitment by the legendary Amelia Earhart.
But that’s another story. Just go to this great museum and you’ll hear it.
To set up a group or individual tour of the Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum, call 401-884-9490 or go to www.cloudshill.org .