The Mark Twain House in Hartford was many things after the famed author left in 1891; private home, school, warehouse, apartment house, branch library and fledgling museum. By the late 1950s, it was a casual affair, a mix of visitors and a few residents including the house's overseer, Margaret Graves, who owned a parakeet named Snowball who loved to swoop from one door to another, to the delight of visitors.
It was at this point the trustees began "the restoration," the work that would eventually produce today's internationally known house museum visited by tens of thousands of people each year. The key was finding a leader.
The library moved down Farmington Avenue and the apartments were allowed to empty out. After the library left, various rooms were painted and chairs were placed with ribbons pinned from the backs to the seats to discourage sitting. Typed cards such as: "Chair, Victorian, Gift of Mrs. Sparhawk, 1954" were placed on various pieces of furniture. A few showcases of Clemens family mementos were scattered about.
Miss Graves passed away in January 1962. The trustees decided it was time to hire a museum professional. In August of that year, they hired Robert Frick as the director. He had been at major museums such as Winterthur, Kenmore and Woodlawn, and been in charge of Pennsylvania's historic sites.
Mr. Frick brought to the house museum experience, an understanding of the Victorian period and, equally important, its culture. Rooms were rearranged to reflect how the family used them. The cards and ribbons were removed. When the trustees decided to restore the conservatory in Miss Graves' memory, discussion evolved about the wording for the memorial plaque. Mr. Frick vetoed it, saying "The Clemens' would not have had it." There was no plaque.
When the house was made a National Historic Landmark, some wanted its plaque mounted on the exterior. It was mounted in the basement exhibition space.
Mr. Frick had a broad vision for the house. He established unheard-of standards of research, and used that research to keep the Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) home in Twain's time. The Clemens family moved in 1874 and left in 1891, never to return. Nothing after 1891 should be in the house. Paintings, china, plants, books, anything after 1891 had to be removed. No American flag with more than 44 stars was permitted.
If furniture was of the period but worn, it was removed; Mrs. Clemens would not have allowed it. The staff of seven servants would have kept the brass shined, the silver polished and the glass globes sparkling. Because of the documented dinner parties, the dining room table was set for six or eight; fresh flowers replaced plastic ones.
Mr. Frick mapped out the course for the restoration. His meticulous methodology guided the work. As the main kitchen, pantry and servants' dining room were in the kitchen wing's basement, an area occupied by a modern furnace, any kitchen restoration must wait until there was a complete reworking of the heating system. In the Clemenses day, the food was prepared in the basement kitchen, came up by dumbwaiter and was plated, "sauced" and served. Offices and meeting rooms were moved to the kitchen wing, allowing for the restoration of the main house. It was completed in 1974, for the centennial.
Mr. Frick's purist approach and standards were rare. Alistair Cooke, author and historian noted in 1976, after filming in the house: "Restorations are usually done with loving but romantic care and leave us with the original 'improved' by our contemporary taste. The Mark Twain restoration is unique: It has been done with such unblinking fidelity to the original, warts and all, that you feel the family has gone out for a walk and will be back at tea time."
In 1977, The National Trust for Historic Preservation presented the "David E. Finley Award for significant achievement in Historic Preservation in the United States to the Mark Twain Memorial of Hartford, Connecticut."
Mr. Frick left in April 1965 and went to Old Bethpage Village in New York. He died last month in Nazareth, Pa.
Wilson H. Faude, executive director emeritus of the Old State House, is a historian, author and consultant.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun