Sunday, February 9, 2014

Margaret Tobin Brown House

In 1886 Isaac and Mary Large commissioned William Lang to construct their home at 1340 Pennsylvania. It was booming business among the silver millionaires to construct large homes on Capitol Hill.

That same year, a young couple in Leadville, CO tied the knot. Margaret Tobin had followed her brother to the mining town a few years prior from their home in Missouri to make their fortunes. She'd hope to meet a wealthy man to marry but fell in love with James Joseph (J.J.) Brown instead. She was 21 and concerned she would never be able to provide for her parents should she marry J.J. But in the end, she wrote, "I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown. I thought about how I wanted comfort for my father and how I had determined to stay single until a man presented himself who could give to the tired old man the things I longed for him. Jim was as poor as we were, and had no better chance in life. I struggled hard with myself in those days. I loved Jim, but he was poor. Finally, I decided that I'd be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money had attracted me. So I married Jim Brown."

They married and had Larry a year later, and Helen two years after. The photo above hangs in the Brown House today. It is the one Margaret claimed was the picture of her family at the happiest they ever were, living in a two room cabin in Leadville.  J.J. was superintendent of the mining operations owned by Ibex and engineered a way to stop the deadly cave-ins mining for gold and copper by using timber and hay bales. 

By 1892 J.J. had been awarded thousands of shares, a seat on the board, and unimaginable wealth. Margaret would be able to provide for her parents after all. They moved to Denver and into a modest house on York. 

Lang also built the large home right next door in a similar style for the Everts the same year. They are done in the Queen Anne style with an asymmetrical facade as well as elements of "Richardsonian Romaneque", mainly in the use of rhyolite stone instead of brickwork as well as sandstone. Both were native stones to Colorado and held up well through the harsh winters.

But when the boom faded in 1893 and economic panic set it, the U.S. government responded by repealing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and returned the country to a gold standard. The silver mines and cities across Colorado were decimated by the change in fortunes. Well positioned with their money in gold and copper mines, Margaret and J.J. worked out an arrangement with the Larges, who were desperate to sell. They moved into the house on York, and the Brown's took ownership of the grand place on Pennsylvania.

It would be Margaret's home until her death in 1932, during the Great Depression, when the estate was sold for only $6000, or just over a hundred thousand dollars in today's money. For the next thirty-eight years the house would pass hands as an apartment building, renovated, with walls and windows put in, the ceilings lowered to help on the heating bills, and a fire escape added. In 1970, in order to save the Brown House from demolition, Historic Denver Inc. was founded and the house moved under its auspices to be restored to its original splendor. The Evert's home next door had been demolished in the sixties, but many of its interior pieces were attained for the Brown house restoration.

Because Margaret had commissioned a photographer to come into her home in 1910, the house's restoration was based on that particular year, just two years before Margaret would become one of the Titanic's most famous survivors. 

the 1910 photo of the entryway

the restored entryway

The gilded walls and ceilings are an embossed paper known as Anaglypta, painted gold to appear as tintype without the cost.

The Everts' mantle 

the Turkish corner, decorated from pieces Margaret brought back from her travels

Margaret and J.J. had signed a separation agreement in 1909 and she retained ownership of the home they had shared. Both devout Catholics, neither would consider divorce, but lived apart for the rest of their lives. The settlement also provided Margaret with a monthly stipend of $700 (more than $18,000 a month in today's dollars) so that she could continue to travel and involve herself in social work. Her projects included raising money to build Denver's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (1911), to create a fund for destitute children, and establish the country's first juvenile court system.She ran for Senate twice before women even had the right to vote. 

The ornate staircase banister is entirely machine carved, which was the "thing" in the day. Hand carved suggested less wealth whereas the new, amazing machines produced from the Industrial Revolution were prized for their ability to create exact replicas on each window of the staircase. 

The calling card tray, held by one of the Turkish blackamoor statues, was another symbol of Brown's style and money. These trays were more typically set upon a table. Women in Victorian society would visit one another and, should the lady of the house not be receiving, would leave her calling card. Should the woman of the house not return the call, it would be the definition of a social snub. Folds on the corners of the card would indicate intentions. A left upper corner fold meant congratulations, a lower right corner meant goodbye, and a lower left corner fold was to offer condolences.  

Margaret had a phone installed in the home, which she never used. But she made certain it was seen from the entryway, to signal to all callers that it was a home of modernity and wealth. 

 The room to the right of the entryway, with the front home windows, was the Parlour. 

The Parlour, should a caller be welcomed into the home, was the space where the most prized possessions would be on display. The windows of stained glass were complemented with Colonial Revival window treatments, instead of drapes. The Polar Bear rug and other taxidermy in the dining room was an Edwardian touch, espcially since Theodore Roosevelt had popularized the big game trophies in Colorado. The wallpaper is an exact replica of the original. A scrap was found behind the large radiator in the front room that was traced to the London manufacturer, who was still in business in 1970, had the Brown's order on file, and reproduced it. When the lower ceilings were removed, some of the frieze had survived and was replicated.

Tea was served in the parlor as a carefully prescribed social custom. Should a woman be accepted in her social call, tea was poured and the visit was to last only as long as the cup of tea. No talk of politics or religion nor any other "disagreeable" topic was typically entertained, but Margaret routinely broke this rule, using social calls to advance her causes. Her china pattern featured clovers in a nod to her proud Irish heritage. 

The original oil painting by Coessin and frame purchased in 1896 on a trip to Paris hangs in the Parlor 

Through the door to the back corner of the house was the Library. This room would have served as the Family Parlor in its earlier years. Below are Margaret's parents before it was converted to the library. 

The bookcases were removed and sold long before Margaret died, but were repurchased in 1994 and reinstalled 76 years after they left. 

The ferns you see hanging on everything were used as party streamers. This garden party in 1910 is what led to the photographs of the house used 60 years later.

To the left at the back of the other corner of the house was the Dining Room

This is the only known photograph of Margaret Brown in her own home. 

The pocket doors allowed dinner to be a "surprise" affair, slid open to reveal the repaste for her guests. The ceiling in the dining room was painted by the Larges to appear like a conservatory with palm trees peeking through the "glass" ceiling.

Upstairs on the landing is the sunroom. Margaret declared this to be her favorite room in the house. It was where you could hear the gaiety of the party below without having to be involved. The windows showcased a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains in her day. And she watched the gold dome of the Capitol being installed from here. The second floor of any Victorian home was private, whereas the first floor was created to impress the public.

Margaret's room was done in a bold green, again a nod to her Irish roots. The fainting couch you see in the center was where ladies, perhaps exhausted from their corset restricting their lung capacity, could lounge. The bed was never used except at night. After it was made up in the morning by the servants, it was bad form to return to it. 

The front bedroom was thought to have been Helen's room. Both Margaret's children were educated back east in boarding schools and there seems to be no evidence that Larry spent much if any time at this house. 

The largest of the bedrooms, and the only one with a fireplace, was referred to as J.J.'s room, although after the first decade he did not live here. It was common for married couples to have their own bedrooms, estranged or not. 

The fourth bedroom was turned into a study, the wallpaper found during the restoration large enough that the pattern could be reproduced. According to the tour guide and booklet, tt is not a Native American pattern, but modeled from an Oriental or Turkish one. 

And the fifth bedroom has been restored, but not featured in the booklet, for Mary's parents. It was a very simple room, a nod to their simpler tastes, with a sewing machine in the corner. The last room on the floor was the bathroom, another sign of affluence to have indoor plumbing put in way back in 1886.

They have decorated the second floor hall with many photographs and written documents from the Titanic. Margaret, who was never, ever called Molly by anyone, was indeed Unsinkable. Her name just didn't rhyme terribly well for the musical. So, for the 1960 Broadway show, Margaret became Molly.  As the guide said, "We call it the Molly Brown House to get you here, and then make sure that's the first myth we dispel."

Margaret had been travelling throughout Europe in 1912 with her daughter Helen, a student at the Sorbonne, when she received word that her first grandchild was ill. She booked passage immediately on the next ship back to America. Helen stayed behind and therefore Margaret was alone on Titanic.  When the alarm was sounded, she dressed herself in many, many layers, knowing from Colorado how the cold could affect you. She also shed several of those layers, giving them to under-dressed passengers up on deck. 

She was one of the few who understood that it was critical to get women into the lifeboats as quickly as possible and was damned if she was going with them as long as there were more women to be herded. Finally, at the departure of the sixth boat, two of the shipmen picked her up as it was lowered about four feet below deck and dropped her in to make certain she got off. 

While on the lifeboat, she and the man at the stern had quite a few heated words as he was bemoaning the certain death of them all, sure the ship going under would suck every lifeboat down with it, and refusing to row any closer to try to pluck survivors from the sea. She said later she was grateful that it was pitch black, for she couldn't have lived to see what she was hearing off in the icy waters that night. 

Once aboard the Carpathia, she immediately set to work wrangling funds from the first-class survivors to help the third-class women who had been left with absolutely nothing, on top of the loss of their husbands. When the rich were slow in giving, she posted papers around the ship publicly listing the contributions, assuring shame on those who were better off and had given less unless they ponied up with their share. It took them three days to arrive in New York, by which time she'd raised more than $10,000. 

A list of the items she submitted to insurance was posted in a frame. One item was a single necklace valued at $20,000 -- in 1912 dollars. A general rule of thumb is to multiply the listed value by twenty to convert into today's value. The items she most regretted losing, however, were some models she had procured to donate to the Denver Art Museum. 

We took the servants' staircase (super narrow) down from the back of the second floor into the kitchen to explore, as well as the pantry and butler's pantry off the dining room. There was also an enclosed back porch with an ice box and a washing stand. The items are beautifully displayed. There was a bell system throughout the house as well. 

The end of the tour brought us back out at the carriage house, which has been converted into the gift shop and spot where you purchase the tour tickets.

Larry and Helen on their pony cart

Margaret in full riding regalia

A later picture of the Brown family before J.J.'s death in 1922. He was rumored to have said to a friend, upon hearing of his estranged wife's survival aboard the Titanic, "Of course. She is too mean to drown."

The current interior of the Carriage House:

Which is actually where our Saturday story begins. You see, we arrived to attend the 11:00 Afternoon Tea, held on the third floor of the house, which is the only place other than the Carriage House that you are allowed to take your own pictures. (The photos of the house are from the book I purchased.)

It's assumed the third floor attic area was once rooms for the servants of the house.

The tea started out with a primer on how to make three different tea sandwiches

But we were also treated with Margaret's favorite blend of tea (Earl Grey and Jasmine) as well as etiquette and tea tips. The curate was filled with fresh strawberries, scones, tarts, and banana bread and the table had been laid with Devonshire cream, marmalade, butter, milk and sugar. 

After tea, we were led back to the exit portion of the tour, but we'd been provided with a complimentary ticket to the home tour at our convenience. So we decided to hop into the very next one at 12:30. 

Oh, and there were hats.

So the only photographs I actually got with my little camera were of the tea or the outside of the house.

You can still the see gold dome of the Capital but a lot of buildings going up in the neighborhood for the historic preservation means there are no more Rocky Mountain views from the street. 

those two little windows at the top were where we were having tea

The ladies we'd sat with at tea had also squeezed into the 12:30 tour and were departing at the same time as us and asked if we wanted a picture together. The shade and wind were against us getting a good one, though. Here's the best we could do:

and I wasn't kidding about that wind!


  1. Very interesting! .....and I have a famous name. :)