Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

Dec 16, 1870

Alfred Stone,

I have a lecture on the Seven Stars of the Great Bear, which I shall be pleased to give before your “Union.” I shall probably be in Boston from Dec 22 to Jan 3d and can come down to Providence in that time, or (what I should prefer) stop at Providence on my way to Po’keepsie, and Lecture Wednesday evening Jan 4.  I have never spoken to an audience of more than 400, and am therefore glad that your hall is a small one.

My charge to a Lyceum is $50. I charge $20 to a school, and should be glad to make some engagements in schools in and around Providence.

Maria Mitchell

My address after Dec. 21 is 81 Inman St., Cambridgeport, Mass.

Alfred Stone, a prominent architect of Providence, Rhode Island invited Maria to speak. Stone was well-known and a founding partner of his architecture firm. He designed the Providence Public Library, buildings at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, as well as numerous private homes, in addition to quite a few other private and public buildings. Her Cambridgeport address for the school holidays was that of one of her younger sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, who lived in Cambridgeport with her husband Joshua and son, William Mitchell Kendall – a young man who would become an architect with McKim, Mead, and White (see an earlier post for more on WMK). Phebe Mitchell Kendall, like Maria, was a member of the Association for the Advancement of Women, serving as the head of the Dress Reform Committee at one point; was the first woman to serve on Cambridge’s School Board; and was an artist of quite some talent, once opening an art school on Nantucket.


Answer to What Is This?

This is a small area of inlay that is found towards the bottom portion of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Made in Boston in 1789, the clock was built by John Deverell and was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William’s parents in December 1812 (or the twelfth month 1812 as they were Quakers). It was then given by them to one of Maria Mitchell’s younger sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall who then left it to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. It came to the Mitchell House in the late 1940s from his estate. If you follow this blog, you may remember that I wrote a bit about Kendall – he was a senior architect with McKim, Mead, and White.


Appreciating and Elevating the Everyday

Glass Lens CoversAs the curator of a historic house museum that dates to 1790, I have a deep appreciation, enthusiasm, and affection for historic architecture and objects from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and earlier. I grew up surrounded by antiques and old houses. I was brought up to appreciate their simplicity, beauty, and utilitarianism. And this in turn, became a part of my occupation and what I surround myself with not just at work but in my personal life as well.

But, I also have a deep appreciation for everything from Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Le Corbusier’s work to Mies van der Rohe, Frank Loyd Wright and McKim, Mead and White designs. I appreciate the Art Deco style, pieces from the early twentieth century, and items designed in the 1950s and 1960s. I find the everyday item, whether it be a mixing bowl, hammer, a simple nail, a door knob, or even a pottery shard beautiful. There is beauty in each of these pieces – they were made for a purpose, designed by an individual, used by many. Many people have touched that door knob as they have gained access to the interior of a house, the bowl has been used to make breads or cakes, the hammer has been owned by and used by my great grandfather and now I use it. The nail I uncovered in the Mitchell House yard or the pottery shard are items once used by the family. It may no longer be useful but it is beautiful in its simplicity, for what it was once used for, and for what it tells us about the past.

We need to look at items from the past − even if their original intended use is outdated and they are not useful for that purpose now − such as the items pictured here. I came across several of these when visiting an antiques show with my parents and it took me a minute to realize what they were. Now, what a beautiful way to appreciate the craftsmanship and design that went into these. Yes, they may still be utilized if one is restoring an old car, but displayed like this in a wrought iron stand allows a person to better appreciate what today is typically a piece of plastic and which (in my opinion) very little imagination has gone into designing. Some of the same companies that designed these lens covers for headlights also made glassware – as in dishes, glasses, and vases. Yes, that is what these are: headlight lens covers.

Recognize this Building?

Boston Public LibraryWhile it’s not on Nantucket it was designed, in part, by a descendant of a long-standing Nantucket family. He was a senior architect for McKim, Mead, and White (MMW) which designed this building. The senior architect was named after his grandfather – William Mitchell. It is William Mitchell Kendall (1856 – 1941), the son of Phebe Mitchell and Joshua Kendall and the nephew of Maria Mitchell. A graduate of MIT, Kendall was a long-time supporter of the MMA, leaving Mitchell family pieces including the family’s tall case clock and Lydia Coleman Mitchell’s childhood sampler to the Mitchell House in his estate. He travelled through Europe with his parents and Maria in 1873 and today we have the notes from his travels during that trip – his focus? Architecture of course!

Kendall was known for continuing the firm’s traditions of Renaissance and classical forms after the death of White. Kendall designed the American Academy in Rome; the New York Post Office; the New York Municipal Building; the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.; and the surround at Plymouth Rock to name a few. The well-known quote from Herodotus on the façade of the NY Post Office was translated by Kendall and used at his suggestion. Does that little line about the post office delivering in rain, sleet, and snow sound familiar?

William Mitchell Kendall

The building in this image is located in Boston – it’s the Boston Public Library built in 1895 with the work of senior partner William Mitchell Kendall. I like to think that he had a little something to do with making sure his aunt was on a tablet there with all of the other famous scientists, artists, and others whose names are carved into the window tablets around the BPL. Even more fitting? That Maria’s name is under that of Mary Somerville’s – one of her heroes and someone Maria met on her first trip to Europe in the 1850s.