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The Handsomest Place in America

The Grange, now called The Codman Estate, is open to the public and operated by Historic New England. 

Escaping financial ruin, the family of Ogden Codman Sr. fled the United States in the wake of the 1872 Great Boston Fire. The fire, which destroyed approximately 65 acres of Boston, largely depleted the family’s fortune, which was heavily dependent upon investments made in insurance and real estate. The family relocated to Dinard, situated on the coast of Brittany, in a self-imposed financial exile, leaving behind The Grange, their ancestral estate in Lincoln Massachusetts, to be rented.
While the Codmans enjoyed a celebrated New England pedigree, perhaps the most famous member of the family was still a child at the time of the Great Fire. Ogden Codman, Jr., who would grow up to be a prolific architect and interior designer, was nine when his family relocated to Brittany. The experience of living in France as well as nostalgia for the Federal-era house where he spent his childhood shaped the aesthetic taste of Ogden Codman, Jr., who returned to the United States in 1882 to live with his uncle John Hubbard Sturgis who worked as an architect in Boston. A year later, Ogden, Jr. was enrolled in the school of architecture in what is now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ogden, Jr. spent his college years writing to his family in hopes of luring them back to United States and mores specifically back to The Grange. He referred to Dinard disparagingly, writing to his mother in 1883 “anything is better than that wretched hole of place.” Ogden, Jr. was ultimately successful in his efforts, and his family returned to the United States in the autumn of 1884.
The enhancements that Ogden Codman, Jr. went on to make to this family estate so impressed wealthy sophisticate (and wife of the Massachusetts governor) Rebecca Gore that she proclaimed the home “the handsomest place in America.”

The Codman family piled into an early automobile. Courtesy of Historic New England. 


Left: Ogden Codman, Jr. Right: The Codman family gathered on the piazza circa 1890. Courtesy of Historic New England.  

edithwhartonWith the Codmans reinstalled at The Grange, Ogden, Jr. fervently began making alterations to the house. Dating to 1741, The Grange was enlarged between 1797 and 1798. Under Ogden Codman, Sr. the house was remodeled and brought up-to-date in the 1860s. The work was carried out by John Hubbard Sturgis, who redecorated the house in the then-fashionable Victorian revival styles. The dining room today (pictured right, courtesy of Historic New England), largely retains its 1860s Elizabethan revival appearance envisioned by John Hubbard Sturgis. It is this stage of work that Ogden, Jr. worked to reverse, stating:
I wish he [Sturgis] had had the sense not to try and bring the house ‘up to date’ but had been satisfied to treat it as I have… just leaving all the design alone, but repairing all that was damaged, and putting in all the plumbing and heating. I am sure the old simple colonial paneling and wainscoting was much nicer than what he and Marcotte did the billiard room, and the dining room, and those dreadful mantels he designed for the bedrooms. But I suppose that in 1862 no one thought anything old fashioned was nice at all. Perhaps if he had left everything as it was I should never been inspired with passion for putting things back as they were.

The first floor of The Grange, drawn by Author  

Ogden Codman, Jr.’s dislike of his uncle’s work at The Grange was reflective of an aesthetic shift that began happening in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. The heavy Victorian revival styles were waning in popularity as Americans of influence began looking towards contemporary European design, which was reappropriating classicism in a style dubbed the Beaux Arts. This, combined with an aesthetic and nationalistic interest in the United State’s colonial past helped define Ogden Codman, Jr.’s aesthetic agenda.

Left: A photograph taken between 1885 and 1893 that shows the billiard room as Sturgis decorated it in 1862. Right: The same room repurposed as a library by Ogden Codman, Jr. Note the proliferation of early American Antiques including the camel back sofa. Photos courtesy of Historic New England. 


Left: The paneled room as it was decorated in the 1880s. Right: Redecorated by Ogden Codman, Jr. Photos courtesy of Historic New England. 

The paneled room was repurposed as a morning room, which Ogden, Jr. described in The Decoration of Houses as “a useful room…[with] two or three good-sized tables with lamps, a comfortable sofa, and chairs covered in chintz, leather, or one of the bright-colored horse-hairs now manufactured in France.” drawingroom1The room reflects Codman’s taste in French furniture and was painted white to show off the original 1740s paneling. The lamps are Asian vases that were wired for electricity and are souvenirs of Sarah Bradlee Codman’s family business in the Asia trade.
Under Ogden Codman, Jr. the drawing room (photo left, courtesy of Historic New England) was decorated to showcase the Codman’s best pieces of furniture. The permanent arrangement of furniture into groupings was a fairly modern phenomena and was dependant on the innovation of central heating and artificial light. In the 18th century furniture, when not in use, was stored at the perimeter of a room.
edithwhartonThe work that Ogden, Jr. carried out at The Grange was further promulgated in the publication of The Decoration of Houses in 1897. The work, which was a co-venture with future literary celebrity Edith Wharton (pictured right), denounced Victorian excess while promoting a return to the classicism of the 18th century. It extolled Italian palazzos, Georgian country houses, and the French architecture of Louis XIV, XV and XVI period. The book praised Georgian furnishing but above all advocated the delicate furniture found in the private apartments of French hôtels and country houses.
Ogden Codman, Jr. ‘s went on to lead a highly successful career, completing work for both Vanderbilt family and the Rockefellers. His distinctive aesthetic was fostered and influenced by his family’s ancestral seat, which he continued making alterations to throughout his life. The Grange, is now open to the public as a museum and is operated by Historic New England.
A Portland, Oregon native, Vincent is particularly interested in historic interiors and decorative arts. His love for historic architecture was indulged at an early age by his parents, who kindly accompanied him on countless tours of historic houses and sites. Vincent lives in South Harlem with his partner, Nate, and their formally feral cat named Edna.


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