05 April 2011

An Ornamental Mystery in Pennsylvania

Ceiling painted on wooden beams, circa 1880s, and relocated in the 1940s
Some months ago I was contacted by a reader, Teresa Huhn, who had a mystery involving the ceiling of her Pennsylvania, home, which was built in the mid 1940s.  The ceiling had been relocated there from a much older building, but which one?  Teresa sent me thrilling photos of the ceiling and told me she'd heard  "two possible histories  provided by relatives of each side of the original owners’ families. 
History #1 says that the ceiling was from the Thaw Mansion, Lyndhurst, that was located along “Millionaire’s Row” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
History #2 says it is from a German church."

a lovely grisaille inset
Was I intrigued?  You bet!    I was inclined to rule out the German church because the imagery in the ceiling isn't religious in nature, nor is the ornament so particularly German, although I have seen its like all over Europe, including parts of Germany.  I consulted some others about this,  who thought it could be German, or Swiss, or maybe French, but it also could be a mix references.   I  then had a major diversion reading up on the lurid history that lead to the near-ruin of the Thaw family and the subsequent disuse and eventual demolition of Lyndhurst, their palatial Gothic Revival country estate.  Lyndhurst was torn down in 1942 after years of neglect, and it did seem likely that some of the architectural elements salvaged from the mansion by antique dealer Vernon Regal may have well have been built into somewhat more modest homes in the area.
The ceiling in its current home: note one of the planks has been made into a valance for the vertical blinds
I decided to investigate the source of inspiration of the ceiling rather than speculate as to its original site.   It's rather nicely painted and in excellent condition, it's typical of the kind of work in "revival" style mansions built in the late 19th century for the new American aristocracy. When it was moved, the ceiling may have been "chopped" or altered in proportions, making it harder to place its original location. It may have been a flat ceiling, rather than pitched as it is now.
the ornament is painted right onto the wood, with details in gold leaf. gorgeous!
I reminds me of the kind of thing you'd see in an early renaissance chateau, like  La Roche Guyon castle or Chateau de Pierrefonds.  Could it be the work of French painters?

My fellow Ornamentalists, if you would like to weigh in on the origins of this ceiling, or its style,  by all means comment and help us get to the bottom of this mystery!

I'd like to thank Ms Huhn for sharing her wonderful ceiling with us, and I  am given permission to say that this marvelous ceiling is currently for sale, and comes complete with a 6 bedroom 6 bathroom house built in  the Midcentury Eclectic Style (sorry, I just made that up) as well as a lovely bit of land in Wexford, Pennsylvania.

Are you cursed with a boring white ceiling and would like something ornamental to improve your life?   Please feel free to contact me, I'd be more than happy to paint something for you.

Click on images to view larger.  photos in this post by Teresa Huhn, published here with permission


  1. I am leaning towards the German origins. The very first thought when I looked at that beautiful ceiling was Pennsylvania Dutch before I even read on.

  2. The ceiling is spectacular - that goes without saying. As one who lived in Pittsburgh for many years, my first thought was of the large Polish community that lived there in the 1800s.

    I used to ride the bus into town and pass through what had been a Polish area. All the row houses still had very distinctive carved doors (think large-scale chip carving), and I lusted after all of them. (I wish I had thought to go to a salvage yard at the time!)

    Anyway, my guess is that this could have been homegrown Polish-Pittsburgh decorating.

  3. thanks Michelle and Mark- it could be either. although it seems a bit more highly finished than anything the local "Dutch" would have done, I would not rule out Polish artisans. Eclecticism and Historicism were all the rage in the late 19th century, things definitely got mixed together, I'm sure this is not strictly one style but it would be great to know where the references came from.

  4. This Renaissance Revival style was very popular in the 1920s and many examples of such a ceiling exist in Manhattan apartment lobbies of the period, but flat instead of sloped as shown here. An examination of the back of the valance might provide hints as to the age, showing the type of saw marks, etc.

  5. Whatever was be the mystery behind this work.But its so beautiful and increase the garce and beauty of the home.I love to decor my home and garden buy such stuff.The captures shared in the post shows the awesome craft and design work in 40's....

  6. "Incredible" doesn't begin to describe this ceiling! I would not begin to know a thing about it, but absolutely love it and am so glad to have seen it!!

    I finally posted about Lover's Eye's and linked back to you. Thank you and I am off to study more of your amazing work! Ann

  7. Spectacular, what a wonderful detail!

  8. For my eyes, it doesn't seem to come from a church... completely profane designs... but definitely gorgeous !!


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