The American Association 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
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. Twenty-four 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
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
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
Restored Parlor, Cappon House
Photo: Balthazar Korab Ltd.
Restored Parlor, Settlers House
Photo: Balthazar Korab Ltd.