Monday, April 12, 2010

Carma’s Corner: From Jeans to Propriety and Back

As the heavy wooden door creaks open, the year 2010 spins and vanishes before me, leaving me in an ornate, detailed foyer. I sit quietly under the intricately painted vaulted ceiling—year 1883. Suddenly, my jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers feel out of place; I realize for the moment I no longer belong to 2010—aside from my modern day attire. But I have become a guest of the McHenry Mansion in Modesto, California.

The mansion was constructed in 1883 by Robert McHenry, a prominent local banker and rancher. He and his wife, Matilda, resided in the mansion from 1883 to 1896. In 1896, Robert and Matilda’s only child, Oramil McHenry, moved in and lived there until 1906. After the McHenry era, the mansion was converted into apartment housing in 1923. It remained apartment housing until 1976 when the Julio R. Gallo Foundation purchased it and donated it to the City of Modesto for restoration and community use.

The first stop on the tour is a small, narrow room most commonly known as the “calling room.” Elegant straight chairs line the edge of the room; drapes that fall to the floor cover the windows, and a tiny, silent fireplace sets against the far wall. If a guest arrived to visit the McHenrys, the guest would be escorted into the calling room, given a “calling card”, and instructed to wait to see if the McHenrys were seeing guests. The average visitation time was a half hour. I look at the chairs and can’t help but wonder, “What if someone had traveled a great distance only to find that the McHenrys were not accepting guests that day.” I realize those chairs have stories, if only they could talk.

After the “calling room,” it’s onward to the formal parlor, living quarters, and then the library. Since the mansion was constructed during the Victorian Age, each room is furnished and decorated with items appropriate to the time period. The formal parlor is filled with fancy furniture, exquisite paintings, and even oil cloths resting on the arms of each chair. Apparently, Mrs. McHenry provided these doilies to her male guests to place behind their heads so the hair oils wouldn’t stain the back of the chair. I smile while thinking, “I wonder what Mrs. McHenry would say upon seeing me with my sneakers on in her formal parlor.”

The next stop is the living quarters. I quickly scan the room for something comforting, but I find nothing. The room appears very similar to the formal parlor; all the furniture looks as though if someone sits down… his/her legs should be crossed. My eyes drift to the piano, the only comforting and fun aspect of the room. In place of television and technology, the McHenrys found entertainment in the piano. It wasn’t uncommon for the couple to host dances within their home. I glance at the piano keys and strain to hear the distant chords of music and laughter. I hear nothing. But I know those keys could still play the music that the McHenrys enjoyed in 1883.

It isn’t until the library that I find my love. The room is sparsely furnished with a few chairs, a reading table, and a desk. But my eyes are immediately drawn to the book shelves along the wall. The shelves hold the greatest of Charles Dickens and all the other well-known British authors. I realize then these books connect 2010 to 1883; I read and study these narratives just as the McHenrys had.

Other highlights of the tour include a fine dining room (large enough to seat 20 people), a small, well-stocked kitchen (only person to see the kitchen was the Chinese cook), two bathrooms with provisional indoor plumbing (a rarity in that time period), and two bedrooms complete with double beds (people were smaller in that time). The basement and fourth floor are not open for viewing, but these floors were used as servant quarters.

As the front door swings open once again, the bustle of 2010 greets me. My jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers no longer feel out of the ordinary. The door gently closes behind me, closing the world of proper etiquette, sophistication, and propriety. But for a few brief moments, year 2010 and year 1883 converge together—through a young lady wearing jeans… surely the propriety of her day.