August 18, 2016 1850’s Desk Links Roxbury’s Kittredge House with 19th Century Boston Furniture Making
Stefani Warren of West Lake Village, California contacted HBI recently when she was disposing of antique items from her father’s many years of collecting. She had a lap desk from the 1850s that had once belonged to a Samuel Wheeler of West Newton MA, and that desk was made and/or sold by the 19th century Boston furniture company of Kittredge and Blake. When she searched the Internet for Kittredge and Blake, HBI’s project at the Alvah Kittredge House turned up, so she offered to send the desk to HBI as a donation.
Alvah Kittredge operated Kittredge and Blake for many years on Cornhill Street in downtown Boston. As a young man he lived in downtown Boston but, with his success in cabinetmaking, was able to acquire land in Roxbury’s Highlands where he built the lavish Greek Revival estate that HBI restored in 2014. Today, pieces of furniture from the Kittredge and Blake company are listed occasionally at auction houses and reflect Boston’s mid-19th century tastes in design.
The lap desk that Ms. Warren sent us was of particular note. A beautiful piece of furniture, it also had all its original hardware and key, and it has many notes, poems and calligraphic sketches done by Mr. Samuel Wheeler for whom the desk was presumably made. Most of the poems and writings pasted into the desk are dedicated to Mr. Wheeler’s wife, Augusta Gardner Gilbert, who very sadly died of consumption when she was only twenty.
Historic Boston is not a collector of historic objects (although we have many from the properties we work on!), so with an item as unusual and, for its association with Alvah Kittredge, historically valuable, we felt it was important to find it a home where it would be preserved and interpreted for generations to come. We’re pleased that Historic New England (HNE), one of the country’s largest and most important historic preservation organizations, has accepted a donation of the desk for its collection. HNE?s curatorial experts observed “We’re particularly interested in the mid- to late-19th century Boston furniture industry. This example is a labeled piece. It appears to be in good condition and can be linked to its original owner.? It makes a nice connection to [HNE’s] 17th and 18th century desk-boxes. It’s also a nice link to the Alvah Kittredge house.”
HBI is grateful to Ms. Warren for her contribution, and to Historic New England for its partnership on behalf of local and regional history. This desk, however small, connects us to the work and world of Alvah Kittredge and provides a poignant view into the lives of the Wheeler family.