Monday, 23 March 2015

A DÉCOR WHODUNNIT AT SPADINA HOUSE

MUSEUM MYSTERIES

BY: MADELINE SMOLARZ

One of my favourite aspects of the Master’s of Museum Studies program has to be opportunities we have to visit and learn from institutions outside the classroom. Roughly a week and a half ago, my Public Programs and Education class (MSL 2332, for all of you eager prospective students) took a field trip to Spadina House Museum. I had visited in the early fall of last year with Musings’ social media co-ordinator Janine, but armed with much more museum knowledge and a new perspective as a Musings contributor, I was able to see the house with fresh eyes. It also helped that Professor Castle had arranged for us to listen to presentations specifically prepared for our group given by the museum’s staff, which included two short lectures and a tour that highlighted how the museum designed its Downton Abbey program last year.

Spadina House's exterior, looking North from the back lawn. Source.

During the tour, our guide pointed out a mysterious feature of the billiards room in the house that I had to share. Perhaps through this post, the mystery can be finally solved! (Okay, perhaps I set the bar a little too high…)

The billiards room, viewed from the door opening into the main hallway. Source.

The billiards room was a largely male-dominated space during the history of the house, which served as a home to the Austin family, the building’s last official occupants. Offering a large billiards table, fireplace, and plenty of comfortable seating, it was the setting for many entertaining hours for the Austin men and their guests. The unique décor adds to the room’s welcoming ambiance. Looking up, you can spot one of the room’s best features: the large painted mural which extends towards the floor from the ceiling. The only thing is, nobody knows for sure who painted it.

A closer look at a portion of the mural in the billiards room. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

The strongest lead the museum has thus far is an artist named Gustav Hahn. He was a recognized pioneer of the Art Nouveau style in Canada, and the style of Spadina House’s mural happens to closely align with his artistic inclinations. In addition, when Hahn immigrated to Canada from Germany, he was hired by large interior design company in Toronto and produced other similar murals in historic homes and public buildings throughout his career. Furthermore, he made Toronto his Canadian home, passing away in the city on December 1, 1962 at the age of 96. These 3 major pieces of evidence point to Hahn as the hand behind this local work of art.

The Flavelle Ceiling in one of the University of Toronto's law buildings was painted by Hahn. See any similarities? Source.

So what is holding Spadina House’s staff back from openly recognizing Hahn as the mural’s creator? The artist did not sign his work when it was completed, an unfortunate omission.

Undated photo of Gustav Hahn. Source.

Other notable mysterious features of the home include a fireplace behind a wall in the library, which historical interpreters will gladly swing open to reveal for you if there is time, and a trapdoor in floor of the sun room, which allowed the gardener to come water the plants without tracking through the house in his outdoor shoes. However, the beautiful mural held the most interest for me and is the true “mystery” of Spadina House Museum. It just goes to show how small details such as the artist behind this painting can be easily taken for granted and lost between generations. I hope one day the mystery will be solved definitively and future guides will be able to include another unique tidbit about the house’s rich history with visitors. In the meantime, I strongly recommend a visit to see the intriguing artwork yourself.

A special thanks to the Spadina House Museum staff for making MSL 2332’s visit so memorable and for the inspiration behind this post!


4 comments:

  1. Great post, Madeline! As a volunteer at the Spadina Museum, I have often wondered about the Art Nouveau mural in the Billiard Room. I also have wondered about the other "museum mysteries" that lie behind its closed doors (or hidden doors) -- the house had a long history as the home to the Austin family, and then another life when it became a City of Toronto museum in the 1980s and was restored again in 2010. There are a lot of layers under which more details of the house's history lie -- whether forgotten or out of public view. I think this could be said for many historic houses.

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    1. Thank you for giving your perspective as a Spadina volunteer! I agree, there must be many more stories like this at Spadina House, as at many other historic residences and sites. I find that volunteers often get amazing behind-the-scenes information and experiences about the secrets of the museums they give their time to. It's a fantastic reward for volunteering, if you ask me!

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  2. Thank you for this great story, Madeline! I will pay attention to the mural during my next visit - I will admit that whenever I visit a historic house, I focus most of my attention to the kitchen and the food related objects. But this is a mystery worth discovering :)

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Professor! I do not blame you for focusing on the kitchen, especially in Spadina House as they have an exceptional kitchen in terms of appliances and food-related artefacts. However, I agree that you can discover very interesting things when you venture beyond your major interests.I'm always pleasantly surprised by what historic houses have to offer!

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