Lessons from the Parlor: Finding Meaning in the Cappon House Restoration
The American Alliance of Museums tells us that house museums are the fastest growing and most visited type of museum in the country. The appeal of house museums is undeniable--we can all relate on some level to experiencing the way people lived in the past. After all, we still live in rooms with furniture and need heat, water and lights and food to be comfortable. The differences between then and now are readily comprehensible and it is fun to imagine living a century ago.

In 1980 the City of Holland, Michigan purchased its own historic house with the intention of turning it into a museum and joined the ranks of American communities preserving their heritage through old houses. Years later and following a $1.6 million restoration, the Cappon House with the addition of the 1867 Settlers House, is poised to be a significant attraction and tool for experiencing history.

The House was built for the Isaac Cappon family, Cappon being Holland's foremost businessman and the first mayor of the incorporated city in 1867. When it was built in 1873-74, the Cappon House, with its high-style woodwork, hardware and finishes was the finest residence in southern Ottawa County. Additionally, it was always the Cappon House, and it never left the family until the city purchased it. Due to the generosity of Lavina Cappon, the contents were donated to the former Netherlands Museum--now the Holland Museum. As a result, the family's belongings are still there. The house contains what is probably the largest collection of early Grand Rapids furniture in its original setting and has an exceedingly rare collection of original floor coverings.

The Museum's umbrella organization, the Holland Historical Trust, knew that the house was a real treasure but that there needed to be extensive planning and fundraising to restore the Cappon House to the level that it deserved. Along came the opportunity to purchase and restore the nearby Settlers House and together the two houses allow us to illustrate Holland's development "from settlement to city."

The story of the Cappons is the story of a Dutch immigrant family's perseverance and their desire to embrace their new country--to become American. The historical record of Holland's first mayor Isaac Cappon is clear in this point: he saw the need for the Dutch immigrants to Americanize. Cappon's house and its contents attest to this Americanization. The family did still care about their Dutch roots (in the upstairs schoolroom there is a copy of the Dutch print "Oranjeboom," a genealogical tree of the House of Orange-Nassau), but there is little that is obviously Dutch about the house.

One room, in particular the formal parlor, is very American and in many ways represents the ideal American Victorian parlor of the 1870s. Evidently, when the family built the house, they hired the Berkey & Gay Furniture Co. of Grand Rapids to furnish and decorate the parlor. The room's furniture, consisting of an upholstered parlor suite, curtain cornice, and mantle mirror, appear in old catalogs and photographs of Berkey & Gay's showroom on Canal St. in Grand Rapids. In 1872, the company advertised that it specialized in "lambrequins [valances], window drapery and every description of fine upholstery work, pier and mantle mirrors, window cornices, etc. etc." and that it estimated and contracted for "furnishing hotels, private parlors, Masonic lodges, etc."

During the parlor's restoration, the Holland Museum's staff and consultants were pleasantly surprised to find that the room's original decoration and upholstery coordinated beautifully--revealing the hand of a professional decorator from Berkey & Gay. The room's color scheme of cream, gold, coral, pink, peacock blue, and scarlet was up-to-date . . . the primary colors of the 1860s had given way to the tertiary colors popular in the 1870s and 1880s.

The pink color of the room's plaster cornice is unusual as are the two "colorways" of silk brocatelle that cover the parlor chairs. Historic design consultant Gail Winkler had never before seen a suite of parlor chairs upholstered in two color schemes of the same fabric pattern. The Cappon chair upholstery foreshadows the trend toward unmatched furniture in American interiors, a feature of the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles that were gaining popularity in the 1870s.

The parlor's artwork is everything but Dutch. Paintings include scenes of England's Lee River and the Bayehon Waterfall in Belgium by Thomas Gibbs Moses, a young artist living in Chicago who was the son of a leather tannery owner. Moses later became well known for painting theatre scenery. A painting dated 1874 by Hudson River artist William Hennessey shows the Hudson illuminated by a glowing sunset.

Prints include steel engravings of "Authors of the United States" by Thomas Hicks (1866) and "The Home of Washington" by T. P. Rossiter and L. R. Mignot (1863). Above the piano hangs a chromolithograph of "Christ Before Pilate," that reproduces a painting by the Hungarian artist Michael Munkascy, who finished the original in 1882 and sold it to the department store magnate John Wanamaker of Philadelphia in 1886 (the Munkascy print was missing from the house for many years. In the 1930s the Cappon family gave the print to Third Reformed Church and the Church subsequently lent it back to the house for the restoration).

The Cappons probably bought most of the parlor's framed artwork in Chicago. The backs of the two fames have labels--a partial one from a Chicago framer and an American Express shipping tag from Chicago to Holland. Also from Chicago are the French marble mantle clock and garniture [decorative side pieces shaped like Roman tazza cups] that are labeled by the Chicago jeweler, N. Matson & Co.

The Cappons chose American prints and paintings for their parlor even though patriotic Dutch prints were available from the book dealer D. J. Doornink of Grand Rapids and Michigan immigrants regularly imported other good from the Netherlands. West Michigan's 19th century Dutch immigrants struggled with the idea of Americanization as many wanted to remain Dutch in the United States instead of thinking of themselves as Americans of Dutch descent.

Isaac Cappon represented the latter view. As one of his 1902 obituaries put it "The deceased was a true type of the Americanized Hollander. He easily understood that the purpose of the immigration was amalgamation and not isolation. It was not difficult for him to bring himself into conformity . . . with the best side of Americanism."

The restored Cappon House reveals more than just American Victorian architecture and interiors. The house is evidence of the struggle that immigrants still face in accepting their new country and forging a new identity for themselves. The Cappon family's embracing of their new country while at the same time respecting their past is an important lesson for today in our nation of immigrants.

Restored Parlor, Cappon House
Photo: Balthazar Korab Ltd.

Restored Parlor, Settlers House
Photo: Balthazar Korab Ltd.

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Sunday (April - September): 12:00pm - 5:00pm
Closed Tuesdays

Address: 31 W 10th Street, Holland, MI 49423
Phone: 616-796-3329


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