The Hunter House Victorian Museum was built in 1894 as the family home for Mr. James Wilson Hunter and his wife Lizzie Ayer Barnes Hunter and their three children James Wilson, Jr., Harriett Cornelia and Eloise Dexter.
As none of the three children married, they continued to live their adult lives in their family home. With no heirs, Eloise as the last surviving member of the family, created the Hunter Foundation. According to her will, she required the foundation to operate her “residence at 240 Freemason Street … with the furniture, decorations, paintings and curios … as a museum and example of American Victorian Architecture.”
In 1988 the Hunter’s family home opened to the public as the Hunter House Victorian Museum. The interior was refurbished with reproduction wall coverings, floor and drapery treatments and upholstery on the original furnishings. Lighting fixtures were refurbished as well with the inclusion of reproduction fixtures where needed. The original collection of furnishings and decorative arts has been complemented with the donation of several unique pieces.
The museum provides guided tours for the public April through December each year as well as offering a full season of special tours, exhibits and events highlighting the various facets of Victorian social history and custom.
Special educational programming is also offered throughout the season for groups of all ages and interests from pre-school to Elderhostel.
In 1990 the museum also became the headquarters for a local chapter of the national organization of the Victorian Society in America, the Eloise Hunter Chapter, Victorian Society in America, named for the museum’s founder, Eloise Dexter Hunter.
James Wilson Hunter was born in Princess Anne County, Virginia in 1850. He was a direct descendent of Dr. William Hunter of England who was in Virginia as early as 1678. His father died when James was 3 years old, his brother and only sibling, William McGuigan Hunter, died when James was 8 and his mother died when he was 17. (It is interesting to note that his father, Josiah Wilson Hunter was orphaned at the age of 7 years and his grandfather, Jonathon Hunter at the age of 9 years.)
Mr. Hunter moved from rural Princess Anne County, Virginia to the City of Norfolk, Virginia by 1870, as he is enumerated in the Federal Census there. He started his career as a clerk in a dry goods firm. By 1874 he was a Partner in the firm of Corprew, Armstrong and Hunter and in 1883 the James Wilson Hunter & Company, Mercantile Business was established in downtown Norfolk.
While building his career, he was also building a family having married Lizzie Ayer Barnes (1859 – 1940) in 1877. She was the daughter of Edward Armitrader Barnes and Harriett Ayer. They immediately began a family as James Wilson Hunter, Jr. was born in 1878, Harriett Cornelia in 1880 and Eloise Dexter in 1885.
In 1893 he hired Vermont-born architect, W. P. Wentworth, to build his dream home, a symbol of his success. The house was completed in 1894. Mr. Wentworth created the Richardsonian-inspired Romanesque Revival townhouse that you see today. Mr. Hunter continued quite successfully in the mercantile business and in 1902 he founded, organized and was President of the Virginia Bank and Trust Company. He was involved in the organization of the Jamestown Exposition of 1907. In 1923, he retired from the mercantile business. From 1923 until his death in 1931, he traveled extensively with his family in Europe, the United States and Mexico. He was active in the Huguenot Society in America and the Virginia Historical Society.
His funeral took place in the home he loved so much and he was buried in nearby, historic Elmwood Cemetery. Mr. Hunter left a sizable estate including railroad and utilities stocks, bonds, and real estate. This estate and the income that it generated descended to his wife, Lizzie Ayer Barnes Hunter, his son, Dr. James Wilson Hunter, Jr., and to his two daughters, Harriet Cornelia and Eloise Dexter Hunter.
James Wilson Hunter, Jr. was educated at the Alexandria Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia before being accepted at the University of Virginia to study medicine. In 1901 he returned to Norfolk to practice both cardiology and radiology, having the distinction of being Norfolk’s first radiologists in 1910. He served as radiologist to St. Vincent’s Hospital. During the first World War, he served as a member of the Medical Advisory Board with the rank of Captain Medical Corps USA. During his thirty-eight year career he was involved with a number of medical societies including the Norfolk County Medical Society (President), Medical Society of Virginia, American College of Physicians, American College of Radiology, American Heart Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Additionally, he was well published in a number of medical journals. In addition to his medical affiliations, Dr. Hunter belonged to the Huguenot Society of America, Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, and the Society of the Cincinnati.
Dr. Hunter retired in 1939. With his own health failing he passed away while at the Army and Navy General Hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas on May 11, 1940.
Harriett and Eloise were both educated at the Phillips and West School on East Freemason Street in Norfolk. They both devoted much of their adult life to the activities of a variety of patriotic and genealogical societies including: Daughters of the American Revolution; United Daughters of the Confederacy; Ancient and Honorable Society, Barons of Runneymede; Daughters of American Colonies; Daughters of Colonial Wars; First Families of Virginia; Knights of the Bath; and the Plantagenet Society.
Harriett passed away on June 22, 1958 and Eloise survived her until her death on December 3, 1965. They, too, are buried on the Hunter family lot in Elmwood Cemetery.
When designing the Hunter House in 1894 for prominent local merchant and banker, James Wilson Hunter, Boston architect W. P. Wentworth, used a style begun by Henry Hobson Richardson less than two decades before, known as Richardsonian Romanesque. The Hunter House is an excellent example of late-nineteenth-century residential eclecticism, combining aspects of the Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne styles.
Richardson created his own interpretation of the Romanesque style by incorporating its rounded arches while enhancing them with the use of bold masonry framing . These arches are seen surrounding most of the deep-set windows and doors of the Hunter House. The house is especially notable for its variety of door and window openings using individual squared and arched windows as well as a triple arched window design along with its multiple gables.
Other aspects of the Richardsonian Romanesque style which are present in the design of the Hunter House include use of rough faced stonework and incorporation of decorative masonry work on the building elevations. At the primary entrance, Wentworth used a typical large scale arch resting on squat columns with highly decorative capitals. This type of elaboration is found on many Richardsonian Romanesque buildings, and is particularly successful in highlighting the primary entrances.
The rich polychromic surface patterns and textures characterizing a traditional Queen Anne style home are also visible through the use of brownstone, granite and brick in the construction. Built during a time when the Queen Anne style was quite popular, Wentworth incorporated elements of this style into the massing and detail of the building. The cross-gable construction is illustrative of the buildings Queen Anne influence.
The tall narrow proportions of the house point to the increasingly urban character of this end of Freemason Street at the turn of the century as does its placement directly on the street with no carriage house included. The home has been refurbished and was opened to the public in 1988.
American Victorian interior design included many different styles which were a result of an eclectic series of revivals and an imaginative blending of historical elements. These styles drew upon classical, medieval, renaissance, and 17th and 18th century European decorative forms and designs. The Victorian era is broken down into Early, Middle, and Late periods and the decorative styles changed throughout with some overlap and some transitional styles extending the boundaries of two or more styles.
Early Victorian styles reflected the end of the Federal and Empire styles and tended to be neat and plain. Late Victorian styles reflected the opulent “gilded age” with an abundance of clutter and decoration. An effort was made to create a lavish feeling of comfort and warmth. This was achieved by the use of multiple layers of curtains and drapes on the windows; upholstered, trimmed and tasseled furniture; and the use of throws and other textiles over furnishings in an effort to soften straight edges. Fancy and novelty decorative objects and naturalistic or trompe l’oeil effects such as in wallpapers and carpets provided a sense of fantasy.
Many wealthy Americans imported decorative materials from England and Europe in attempt to create a feeling of antiquity and an international style. However, most of the decorative elements, a legacy of the industrial revolution, were produced in America and were available even to the middle-class. Home decoration became available for everyone. Ready-made decorative elements could be found at the local lumberyard or ordered by mail. Local skilled craftsmen created original elements or could consult many pattern books. Even the middle-class could now afford to hire decorators and furnishers or they could consult one of many available books such as Hints on Household Taste (1868) by the English architect and furniture designer Charles Locke Eastlake (1836-1906).
The Hunter House is a prime example of the Late Victorian style. This period is characterized by: carved and turned millwork stairs and woodwork; stained, leaded, beveled, etched or ground glass; wood ornamentation such as posts, pillars, balusters, and spindles, wainscoting and other forms of paneling; spandrels, brackets, doors and windows; plasterwork; decorative wallpaper and ceiling paper; and an eclectic collection of furniture including such styles as gothic revival, rococo revival, cottage style, renaissance revival, Eastlake, classical revival, and exotic/aesthetic (Moorish, Egyptian, Japanese, Turkish, etc.). Families strove to show off their sense of style and “good taste”. Decorative treatments were devised for each room of the house with each room having a specified function and therefore certain “required” elements.
The hall is the first room to be seen by visitors and was viewed as the heart of the house, as it had been in medieval manor houses. In the Early Victorian period it was a room for show and grandeur with armor, antiques and curiosities, and portraits, demonstrating the owner’s sense of antiquity and nobility, rather than emphasizing the practical use. In the Late Victorian style, the Hall became more of a receiving room, with more practical furnishings such as settees, hall tables, and a hall tree.
The parlor was treated as the “best” room and usually included a collection of the family’s finest possessions. These would include: upholstered furniture (or slip covered or draped in summer); a center table for books, a reading lamp, tea service, and collectibles; the hearth or stove decorated with tile or marble and a mantle adorned with a lambrequin, candelabras, vases, and a clock; a bookcase, desk or piano; fine art such as portraits, genre and landscape paintings, sculpture, and vases; a whatnot shelf, étagère, or curio to display prized pieces of china, silver, or glass; occasional tables and stands for lamps, vases or plants; decorative wallpaper and ceiling paper or stenciling; and richly patterned carpets.
In particular note in the Hunter’s parlor is the collection of oil paintings, two from the Hudson River School, and a circa 1900 rosewood Oriental Display Case.
The library, also referred to as the back parlor, the gentlemen’s parlor, the study, or the den, was usually seen as a male room which meant decorating and furnishing in a lofty and serious manner. Gothic and Elizabethan styles were favored, including bookcases, library tables, writing desks and easy chairs. The library often served as a domestic museum of relics, specimens, objects of art, and curiosities.
Mr. Hunter’s secretary, an original Virginian piece of the 1820’s, dominates the library. In a more modern sense, the architect built in adjustable library shelving in 1894. Reproduction wall coverings are rich green velvet upholstery.
The dining room was also meant to appear masculine, warm, rich, and substantial, in addition to creating an air of hospitality. Since it was mostly used in the evening, it had to look good by candle or oil light. The main piece of furniture was the large dining table, usually covered with a heavy cloth, and accompanied by dining chairs and a sideboard. Dining room furniture was most often highly carved and decorative.
The dining suite was probably the newest piece of furniture that the Hunters bought for their 1894 home. With the more modern move toward lighter woods, the table and chairs were crafted in quarter sawn golden oak; the apron and feet are heavily adorned. The overall ambiance of a medieval banquet hall is achieved with the combination of wall coverings, tapestry upholstery and wainscoting.
Bedchambers were decorated in more personal tastes with an effort to please oneself instead of others, and to provide a more relaxed and private space. In addition to large bedsteads there were dressers, washstands, writing desks, comfortable chairs and occasional tables.
Exhibited in two bedchambers in the museum are examples of mid-century Renaissance Revival furnishings and early Eastlake furnishings.
Particular to the Hunter House Victorian Museum is a chamber designed and interpreted as a study for Dr. James Wilson Hunter, Jr., one of Norfolk’s first radiologists. Imitation tooled leather covers the walls and a geometric carpet covers the floor. Furnishings from his offices downtown typify the Arts and Crafts Movement of the turn-of-the-century.
You, too, can join the Victorian Revival that started in the 1960’s, when it became popular to rescue antiques, and has been in full swing as a decorating style since the 1980’s. While most people think of Victorian as a single style, remember that it is more like an eclectic mix of many revival styles, typically densely patterned and cluttered with masses of collections and ornaments. You might not want to create an authentic period look, although you could do so, by consulting many available books and carefully studying the photographs and descriptions. Instead, you might just want to add an element of Victorian attitude, values, and style, by decorating with or around a few choice antiques.
Banham, J., Porter, J., & MacDonald, S. (1995). Victorian Interior Style. Studio Editions.
Bridgeman, H. & Drury, E. (1975). The Encyclopedia of Victoriana. Macmillan.
Grow, L. & Von Zweck, D. (1984). American Victorian. Harper & Row.
Kemp, J. (1985). Victorian Revival in Interior Design. Fireside.
Leopold, A. K. (1986). Victorian Splendor: Re-creating America’s 19th-Century Interiors.
Schwin, L. (1994). Decorating Old House Interiors. Sterling/MainStreet.
Seale, W. (1995). The Tasteful Interlude: American Interiors Through the Camera’s Eye, 1860-1917. Altamira.
Winkler, G. C. & Moss, R. W. (1986). Victorian Interior Decoration: American Interiors 1830-1900. Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
Norfolk At The Turn of the Century…
Results from the 1900 Federal census show Norfolk with a population of 46,624, an increase of more than 10,000 people from 1890’s population of 34,871.
News from the Norfolk Dispatch …
January – The Norfolk Dispatch appeals to the Norfolk Street Railway Company to put heaters in its streetcars “for the sake of the half-frozen motormen . . . and the shivering public.” In November, a fire destroyed nearly 50 streetcars in the Huntersville car barn, and replacement equipment is ordered from Philadelphia, hopefully, the Dispatch suggests, with electric heaters aboard.
April – Incumbent C. Brooks Johnston narrowly defeats challenger, Dr. James G. Riddick, in a bid for re-election as Norfolk Mayor.
28 May – Total eclipse of the sun, visible here for 90 seconds at 8:53 AM. The National Geographic Society sends a party of 250 from Washington to view the eclipse. President McKinley and his party also come down, and observe the eclipse from aboard the presidential yacht, the Dolphin, anchored in the harbor.
8 June – The Virginian-Pilot newspaper issues a special 68-page “20th Century Edition” in addition to its regular paper of 12 pages.
September – With a vote of 13-1, the Norfolk School Board bars married women from teaching in Norfolk schools.
10 September – In Galveston TX, an estimated 6,500 lives are lost in a West Indian hurricane, called the greatest disaster in US history. Norfolk citizens rally to raise funds to aid the sufferers.
November – Incumbent William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryant, to become the 25th United States President, although Bryant carries Norfolk. McKinley’s life will be ended by an assassin’s bullet in September 1901.
November – Miller, Rhoads & Company announces the opening of a large new department store on Main Street.
December – A new federal building opens at Atlantic and Plume downtown.
Norfolk citizens enjoy their first full year of clean drinking water, a result of a water filtration system installed at the Moores Bridges pumping station in October 1899. To help conserve the water supply against the rapid increase in use, water meters are proposed, but the suggestion meets with resistance.
Two telephone systems operate in Norfolk – Southern Bell and Southern States. Neither connects with the other, and it is necessary to subscribe to both companies and have two phones installed in order to get citywide service. Southern Bell charges $60.00 a year for office phones, $36.00 for residential phones, and an economy rate of $12.00 a year for phones with no bells, from which calls can be placed but not received. There is great demand for a unified system, but this will not be achieved until 1910, when Southern States sells to Southern Bell.
David Pender, newly arrived from North Carolina, opens his first Pender’s grocery store.
Elmwood Cemetery was established by the City of Norfolk on 50 acres on the city’s northern most limits in 1853.
By that time burial space in the churchyard at St. Paul’s Church as well as space in the city’s Cedar Grove Cemetery had been depleted. The timing was providential as a ferocious case of Yellow Fever would spread through the city in just two years; on its heels would fall the War Between the States. The space would certainly be needed.
With such death tolls and amid such public display of mourning, death took on a romantic veil. The church graveyards came to be referred to as “cemeteries, “ from the Greek for “sleeping place.” Thus, loved ones were only sleeping; many epitaphs read “asleep in Jesus.” Similarly, the “coffin” was replaced with the “casket,” again Greek in origin meaning “jewel box,” or a place for the safe keeping of precious items. The precious items were of course, the loved ones.
Up and down the eastern seaboard cities were designing cemeteries with a new philosophy in mind – they were to be peaceful, restful places of solitude and tranquility. Family members would visit the cemeteries often; they would lovingly tend to the physical space by planting and pruning and decorating the space. Leisure-like activities such as picnics and gambols were afforded in these beautiful places. Often the name of the cemetery was a reference to the abundance of plantings, such as cedar trees, elm trees, holly trees, and the like. Where possible, cities laid out their cemeteries along cliffs and bodies of water or incorporated the rise and fall of the land into the cemetery design. Often the designs were commissioned of landscape architects. These areas became the forerunners of public parks.
In the effort to memorialize as well as to demarcate family lots, large monumental markers were often placed upon the family lots. Lots were then enclosed with iron fencing or granite coping. The family’s name or crest could be incorporated into the design.
As you wander through Elmwood Cemetery today you will find it to be an outdoor museum of funerary art and sculpture. The statues and art include the iconography of Victorian mourning: ivy represents fidelity, the lily represents resurrection, and the anchor represents hope. Look for the cross and the crown, for guardian angels and for recording angels. Deftly sculpted mourning figures cling to life sized crosses at the foot of and atop many monuments. Children’s graves are often marked by lambs and by angels and a few, by seashells. Several memorials to the young are statues carved to resemble children, even perhaps the actual child.
Varied in size and design, mausoleums dot the landscape in Elmwood Cemetery. Two of the most interesting are revival designs. The Core mausoleum built in 1915 appears to be a Greek temple. The LeKies mausoleum built in 1892 is a miniature Gothic church.
Burials are still conducted in Elmwood today but there are no lots available for sale.
Tours and programs at the cemetery are offered throughout the year by the Hunter House Victorian Museum as well as by the Friends of Norfolk’s Historic Cemeteries. The Hunter Family is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. As the last surviving family member, Eloise Hunter requested in her will that the Hunter Foundation place flowers upon the family graves at five times during the year: Easter, Memorial Day, All Saint’s Day, Ascension Day and Christmas. The museum recreates the once popular Decoration Day each year around the Memorial Day holiday. Walking tours are offered and bouquets of fresh flowers and greens are placed upon lots that have no decorations. Guests are encouraged to bring along a picnic lunch, as was the custom of the time.
The Friends of Norfolk’s Historic Cemeteries is working to have the cemetery placed upon the National Register of Historic Places; it has been deemed eligible for inclusion by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Elmwood Cemetery is located on East Princess Anne Road in downtown Norfolk between Church Street and Monticello Avenue. The cemetery is open daily from 7 AM – 5PM. An office is situated just inside of the gates and has family burial and genealogical information available. You are welcome to venture in and wander through. The original grassy aisles can still be maneuvered by car, however, please drive with caution. Your best vantage is on foot. Many stones are lovely, but are also deteriorating, please do not sit or lean upon them. Although tempting, stone rubbing can also deteriorate the fragile monuments. These monuments are not only works of art, but are also historical records providing family information for genealogists and local history for historians. You will indeed be in and on an historical site.
If you are interested in the continued preservation of this site, please consider becoming a member of the Friends of Norfolk’s Historic Cemeteries. Please call the Hunter House Victorian Museum at 757-623-9814 for more information.