The Farnsworth Library Mantel

The comfortable reading room of the William A. Farnsworth Library is enhanced by a marble mantel originally imported for the U.S. Capitol. Initially one of a pair, the mantel eventually found its way to the Farnsworth Library after having been installed for a time in the 10,000 volume library on the second floor of the Washington, DC home of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray.

In August 2008 the Farnsworth Art Museum was visited by William C. Allen, the Architectural Historian and first Historic Preservation Officer for the U.S. Capitol. During his visit he noticed that the marble mantelpiece in our library was identical to another mantel in the Capitol. Research by Allen in Washington and a search of Farnsworth records by Curatorial Assistant Jane Bianco has revealed the history of the piece.
In 1942 the mantel was acquired for “a symbolic fee of $1.00” from Jane Gray, the widow of Justice Horace Gray, b y consultant Robert P. Bellows,

The Farnsworth Library Mantel. Photo by David Troup

who had been hired by the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company to assist with the planning stages of what was to b ecome the William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum. In an April 1942 letter to Bellows, Mrs. Gray wrote:

"It was one of a pair of Vatican marble mantels imported for the Capitol and placed in the ‘Robing’ room of the Supreme Court. After some years a Senator from Tennessee insisted on replacing one of the mantels with a ‘Tennessee’ marble mantel as being more suitable in an American setting and this mantel was delegated to the Crypt of the Capitol and piled up with old lumber there. Mr. [Frederick Law] Olmstead our greatest architect found it there in 1880 about and told Justice Gray about it who bought it from the government and built in our home on N. 1601 I Street. ... It was built into his great library of 10,000 books on the second floor of the house. When we left Washington we brought it with us for No. 79 Mount Vernon Street [Boston]. After it was installed by our architect Mr. Harleston Parker I received a letter from  the Roosevelts (Theo.) asking for the privilege of buying it for the White House which they were ‘doing over.’ As it did not belong in the White House, I wrote that I was saving it for the Supreme Court and expected to give it to the Court with the bronze relief of Justice Gray to be put again in the Robing Room from which it had been taken. That is all. I’m glad it can be preserved in the Rockland museum." 
The Farnsworth Library Mantel. Photo by David Troup

Although Jane Gray’s letter indicates that the carved white marble fireplace surround in the museum library was placed in the robing room of the Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol building, Allen thought it impossible that the Farnsworth mantel had been in the Supreme Court’s robing room, as an identical mantel remains there today. He determined that the Farnsworth mantel is one of a pair of mantels intended for the Capitol building. The Farnsworth mantel was originally designated for a Senate office in the Capitol; in 1860 that office was turned over to the Supreme Court.

The two mantels by English or Italian designers and Italian carvers were ordered from an English importer of Italian marble, Purviance, Nicholas & Co. These were shipped to Washington in October 1817 as part of a larger order of 161 crates of materials used in the Capitol reconstruction and repair work supervised by architects B. Henry Latrobe, who worked on the project from 1815 to 1817, and Charles Bulfinch, who took over the project in 1818 and worked until its completion in 1829.

 Motifs found in ancient Greek and Roman architecture, such as Corinthian columns and egg-and-dart moldings, were popular in nineteenth-century America. These references to the past served to connect the ideals of a young America with the enduring values of ancient Greece and Rome.