Friday, 12 June 2015

CALLING ON ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL: WHEN A HOME BECOMES A (HISTORIC) HOUSE

WALK OF FAME

BY: MADELINE SMOLARZ

The front sign of Bell Homestead National Historic Site. Photo: Madeline Smolarz.

Prior to leaving Toronto to move to Ottawa for a summer internship, I spent some time with my family in Brantford, Ontario. I have a newfound appreciation for Brantford’s history every time I return home and reconnect with the city’s past, whether I end up wandering downtown, volunteering at the Brant Historical Society, photographing historic buildings, or sifting through the archives of my Dad’s third-generation family-owned auto body business. This time, I chose a warm, sunny April afternoon to drive out to the edge of Brantford to visit Bell Homestead National Historic Site, one of the most significant historic locations in the area. Alexander Graham Bell, its internationally famous prior resident, is well known for the part he played in putting Brantford on the map of recognizable Canadian places, long before star hockey player Wayne Gretzky came around (105 years, to be exact). The star of this Walk of Fame article is not so much the man who invented the telephone, but rather the site that has memorialized him and his work. What is it that makes historic homes closely connected to significant persons special?  During my experience, it was the deeply personal aspects of the Homestead that resonated with me most deeply.

Henderson House. Photo: Madeline Smolarz.

I started by walking through Henderson Home, Canada’s first telephone office which has been relocated from downtown to sit next to the historic house. After snapping many photos of the exhibition on the telephone’s evolution inside, I exited and made my way to the front door of the Bell family’s home, named Melville House for the inventor’s father, to meet my guide. Once inside, I was led through a series of formal and informal rooms where the family spent a great deal of time entertaining, cooking, and simply living.

Melville House. Photo: Madeline Smolarz.

I mentally formed a question as we came to the base of the stairs leading to the second floor, where I was told I could explore the upper floor alone: Why is independent exploration often cast aside in favour of supervised, staff-led tours in the interpretation of historic homes?  I found there were no text panels on the second storey. I only knew the few sentences my guide had spoken to describe what I would find up the stairs: bedrooms, storage, and personal family items. Sunlight filtered into the hallway and rooms were arranged as if they had been just left by their residents. The quiet of the site, the waiting home, and my hushed breath gave the entire experience a time-travelling aura; I really did feel like I was visiting the Bells and one of them would come up the stairs any moment. In the end, I found the upstairs rooms needed little professional interpretation as I had received a great deal of information about the family whilst on the first floor, so effectively peeking in on their personal lives served to enhance my connection with them. I thought of instances where I had not had the option to investigate a historic home on my own - Mackenzie House, for example - and wondered how my experience would have been altered if I had been allowed to have independent time along with a tour as well, or only the former.

The second floor hallway. The stairs and two more rooms are not visible. Photo: Madeline Smolarz.

As my guide and I neared the end of the tour, we stopped at a work table in Alexander’s bedroom and examined some of the sketches and objects there, which represented things he would have tinkered with as he formulated and built the device that became the telephone. I asked how many were original and it was a good portion, but not all, similar to the other rooms in the house. Every effort has been made to obtain lost or sold objects and documents wherever possible, yet many remain elsewhere.

The busy desk in Alexander Graham Bell's bedroom on the ground floor. Photo: Madeline Smolarz.

Another question came to my mind: How important is a complete-as-possible collection to a historic house’s effectiveness?  As many people - including myself - do not know much about period-specific furniture and household objects other than being able to generally tell old and new apart, perhaps they would not be affected knowing whether such-and-such a chair was used by the home’s grandmother or not. Can replicas or “close enough” vintage finds effectively stand in for what was once really there? I found the predominance of original objects to be inspiring, but I did not feel that their presence altered my learning experience greatly. I believe I would have been inspired to know and explore more regardless of the inclusion of an original cast iron stove, yet I should say that gazing upon the same piano Bell himself played gave me a strong feeling of his personal presence. A previous visit to Colborne Lodge in Toronto allowed me to be immersed in a nearly entirely authentic version of the house, but I don’t remember that being my greatest impression of that particular site.

The main living room. Much of the furniture you see is original. Photo: Madeline Smolarz.

In the end, I admit I was left with more “big” questions than answers after my visit to Bell Homestead National Historic Site, but thankfully none related to the Bells’ family history or the importance of this museum. I invite you all to find a historic home in your vicinity and compare your experiences as I did. Perhaps I have been made biased by my personal connection to Brantford, which leads to a whole other set of questions, but for now I will simply say that I will look at homes-turned-historic-house with new eyes from now on.

I would like to sincerely thank the Homestead staff who provided me with a personal tour of the house and grounds.

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