Emily Dickinson museum plans $2M project to restore period wallpaper, floor coverings and other decor

  • The Emily Dickinson Homestead on Main Street in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Old wallpaper uncovered in a room in the Emily Dickinson Homestead. A restoration project aims in part to install period-style wallpaper here and in several other places in Dickinson’s home. Image courtesy Emily Dickinson Museum

  • One of the parlors in the Emily Dickinson Homestead. Renovations will begin this spring to bring rooms and hallways in the house back to a condition as historically accurate as possible. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A replica of a dress worn by Emily Dickinson outside her bedroom. Renovations will begin this spring to bring rooms and hallways in the house back to a condition as historically accurate as possible. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, stands in the library, which was renovated in 2017. Wald says the decorating principles used in the 1900s were known as Harmony Contrast and that those principles will be used to renovate the hallways and rooms. “The patterned floor cloth, vibrant colors and striped carpet will be far different than our 21st-century aesthetics,” she says. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, in a hallway in the historic home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The stairway leading to the third floor of the Dickinson Homestead will be replaced and moved to its original location. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, which was renovated in 2016, will only need a more accurate floor covering in the coming renovations. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, stands in the library, which was renovated in 2017. During that time, old wallpaper was uncovered that has helped staff see what had been used in the house when Dickinson lived there as an adult. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, March 01, 2021

AMHERST — The Emily Dickinson Museum, which has made a number of improvements to its facilities and grounds in recent years to increase their historical accuracy, is about to embark on what staff are calling “its most significant restoration project to date.”

From the installation of period-style wallpaper and carpets, to the inclusion of decorative items and furnishings appropriate to the 1850s, the estimated $2 million project aims to return the home of Amherst’s most famous resident more fully to the look and feel it had during the poet’s adult lifetime.

“We see this as an opportunity, along with the renovations we’ve already made, to let visitors really see Emily Dickinson in her own landscape and her own time,” said Jane Wald, the museum’s executive director.

Wald says the work on the Homestead, where Dickinson composed much of her poetry from the 1850s through the mid 1860s, is expected to start this spring and run through most of 2021. The museum, which includes the Homestead and the nearby house known as The Evergreens, the home of Dickinson’s brother Austin and his family, has been closed since the pandemic arrived and will remain shut while the restoration work progresses, Wald said.

But when the museum reopens, hopefully, in March 2022, she added, visitors to the Homestead will be able to view about three times as much fully restored space as can currently be seen, and new details will be available for understanding Dickinson’s daily life.

Funding for the work will come in part from an endowed $22 million fund the museum received a few years ago as part of a $25 million gift left to Amherst College, which owns the museum, from the late Amherst alum William McC. Vickery. The museum will also tap some other sources and do some fundraising for the new restorations, Wald noted.

Work is slated for a number of places in the Homestead, including hallways, parlor rooms, and what’s known as the Northwest Chamber, a second-floor room adjacent to Dickinson’s bedroom where her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, spent the last years of her life.

In all these spaces, period-style wallpaper that matches or closely resembles the original decor will be installed, and in some cases modern floorboards will be replaced, new paint schemes will be applied to some of the woodwork, and various period furnishings and decor will be put in place.

Many of those furnishings will be moved over from The Evergreens, where later generations of Dickinson’s extended family had moved them from the Homestead in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Wald noted.

The parlors in particular will be decorated with wallpaper that Dickinson’s niece described as “white with large figures” and a carpet woven with “a great basket of flowers, from which roses were spilling all over the floor to a border of more flowers at the edge.”

Wald said some of the wallpaper patterns, or fragments of them, were found amidst several old layers of wallpaper that were uncovered in these rooms and spaces. Working with architectural specialists and other consultants, she said, “We’ve been able to pinpoint which patterns would have been in use” in the mid-19th century.

Some of the discoveries have been unearthed over time and others by accident; when a ceiling of one of the parlors collapsed in 2009, Wald related, museum staff were able to get a firsthand look at some of the original construction and decorative elements previously hidden.

Another key part of the upcoming work is bringing in 21st-century technology that’s designed to preserve 19th-century history. New heating and cooling systems for the Homestead and The Evergreens will provide much better temperature and humidity control than the current systems, Wald said — a key need considering the antique furnishings in the museum.

Though she’s been disappointed the museum has been closed for in-person visits for so long, Wald said she’s been excited to see people engaging with the historic center through a range of online programs the museum has developed, including virtual tours of the property. When the museum held its annual “Tell itSlant” Poetry Festival last fall online, “We had people from 49 states and dozens of other countries participating,” she said.

The upcoming restoration work is also coming amid continued interest in Dickinson in popular culture, Wald says. She points to the Apple TV+ series Dickinson, the connections between the poet and Taylor Swift’s new album “Evermore,” and the philanthropy of MacKenzie Scott.

The famously reclusive poet has also received some renewed cachet during the pandemic. “She’s been called ‘The Queen of Quarantine,’” Wald said with a laugh. The poet has also been dubbed “The Original Queen of Social Distancing.”

Ideally the restoration work will bring an even greater level of understanding to the history of Dickinson, her family, her home and the details and circumstances of her daily life, Wald said: “We’re anxious to show that to visitors when we reopen. We think that can help make Amherst more of a cultural destination than ever.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.