A week and some days ago, I spent an afternoon in downtown Newark, New Jersey. Anyone familiar with Newark knows that the city has seen far better days and that its “rebirth” has been inaccurately forecast on numerous occasions. Newark holds a nefarious—and not necessarily unearned—reputation for crime and corruption throughout and beyond the Garden State. Sadly, the decay and the neglect of Newark are visible upon leaving the train station.
Negative observations and opinions aside, Newark possesses a wonderful art museum with remarkable collections of American and Asian art. Its Tibetan collection is cited as one of the finer assembled in the world. On this day, I braved the PATH train and a stroll through downtown Newark to visit the Newark Museum, specifically the historic Ballantine House.
Sitting on the edge of Washington Park, once a posh residential district and today a civic and commercial center of the city, the Ballantine House was completed in 1885 as the grand home of John Ballantine and his family. John Ballantine was the president of Ballantine Brewery and the son of the company’s founder. The House remained in the family until 1919 when it was sold to an insurance company for office space. Due to happenstance and a lack of funds by different owners (including the Museum), the House escaped demolition over the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. Restoration of the House to its proper Victorian splendor began in time for the American Bicentennial of 1976 and continued into the 1990s under the guidance of longtime curator Ulysses Grant Dietz.
In The Ballantine House and the Decorative Arts Galleries at the Newark Museum, Dietz explained the importance of House:
“New Jersey is a state of suburbs, with a vast population of suburbanites who have forgotten Newark’s grandeur and importance in the history of the American city. New Jersey is also a state of urbanites, most of whom have never known their home cities as rich and brimming with an unbridled optimism shared by all residents. The American dream was born in New Jersey’s cities in the nineteenth century, and the Ballantine House stands as a living symbol of one family’s dream come true.”
After hearing Mr. Dietz wax about the House at a forum this winter at the Museum of the City of New York, I felt guilty for not enjoying a treasure so close to my home. I love historic homes and I only needed to travel two stops on the PATH train to experience this one.
Having established a context, how to describe the Ballantine House? When I stepped through the door separating the Ballantine House from the museum proper, I entered a private dreamscape situated in the lushness of Victorian America.
A low, soft light revealed the dark woodwork and red carpeting of the entrance hall. Its impact has not changed in well over a hundred years: a visitor is instantly awestruck by the invitation into such a beautiful, comforting, affluent home. A gauzy dimness (no doubt to preserve the interior and its artifacts) overhangs the entire home, heightening its overall and almost tangible otherworldiness.
The first floor contains the semi-public and public rooms of the House: the library, parlor, billiard room, music room, reception room, and dining room. These rooms would be shared among members of the Ballantine family and with guests and visitors. Each room is splendidly restored and decorated with furnishings, homewares, bric-a-brac, and artwork appropriate to the Victorian age. Some of which are from the original home.
The second floor contains the master bedroom, three smaller bedrooms, a sewing room, and a boudoir. These rooms embrace the style and substance of a well-to-do family in the 1890s.
Why do audiences visit homes such as the Ballantine House? The simple answer is an appreciation and love for art, architecture, elegance, and refinement. Again, those are the simple reasons. Why else? I’ll attempt to explore that question in my next post.