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Recreating the Kitchen at Clayton

Recreating the Kitchen at Clayton
July 28, 2020 By: Dawn Reid Brean, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts

Recreating the Kitchen at Clayton

When the Frick family lived at Clayton, the kitchen was undoubtedly the scene of bustling activity. An annunciator, or electric call system, hangs on the kitchen wall where it could be easily seen and heard by household staff. Fans of Downton Abbey are probably familiar with the annunciator’s predecessor, the elaborate bell system seen in the opening credits. With the push of one of the small mother-of-pearl buttons found in each room, the Frick family could summon a maid or valet from anywhere in the house. The bell at the top of the annunciator rang and an arrow swung to the signaling room so that the domestic staff could quickly attend to the proper room. A knob at the bottom of the box reset the arrow after the task had been addressed. More than 100 years after it was installed in the kitchen at Clayton, the annunciator remains on the wall, but the room in which it hangs has changed considerably over time.

Clayton kitchen, c. 2020.

Annunciator in Clayton kitchen.

If you’ve ever been on a tour of Clayton, you might have been surprised to learn that the kitchen is the most changed space in the house. But when you consider that the family maintained ownership of the house until Helen Clay Frick’s death in 1984, it makes sense that the kitchen was updated. In fact, the kitchen visitors see today was no longer a kitchen at all in the 1980s. At some point, probably in the 1950s, Helen converted the space into a sitting room. A built-in cabinet replaced the alcove for the cast iron range and shag carpeting displaced the original encaustic tile floor. The scullery, an adjoining space originally devoted to food preparation and the cleaning and storage of pots and pans, became the kitchen. The updated layout knocked down walls to eliminate the original cold storage room in favor of counter space and room for modern appliances. Linoleum covered the floor. By contrast, the butler’s pantry was remarkably unchanged since the 1890s and continued to store porcelain and glass dinnerware.

Clayton kitchen, 1984.

Clayton scullery as kitchen in 1984.

Butler’s pantry at Clayton, 1984.

The kitchen and scullery posed a unique restoration challenge as architects and curatorial staff prepared to open Clayton as a historic house museum in the late 1980s. Luckily, they discovered valuable resources that showed the original configuration of the space, including blueprints by Frederick J. Osterling, the architect responsible for the renovation and expansion of Clayton in 1892. His design included the addition of the enlarged kitchen, butler’s pantry, scullery, and cold storage room.

Although the scale of this model kitchen printed in Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book (New York: Macmillan Company, 1902) is much larger than the kitchen at Clayton, the two interiors share many similar features.


Model scullery from Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book (New York: Macmillan Company, 1902).

Kitchens in wealthy and upper middle class Victorian homes were often on the cutting edge of domestic science and Clayton was no exception. Osterling designed the kitchen and adjoining prep spaces for maximum efficiency, utilizing the latest technology from the 1890s. Demands for improved hygiene and sanitation influenced fixtures and materials, such as the gleaming white tile walls and oil-painted canvas wall hangings—both surfaces are easily cleaned. Tall windows within the space admit abundant natural light, supplemented by electricity installed in 1888. Custom cabinetry in the butler’s pantry and scullery provides plentiful storage for the dinnerware necessary for lavish entertainments as well as the numerous pots, pans, and cookware accoutrement necessary to prepare them. The sink in the butler’s pantry was conveniently located so staff could swiftly return dishes to their locations after washing. Likewise, staff used the scullery sink to wash vegetables, prepare food, and scour pots and pans.

Receipt listing gas range purchased for Clayton from J.C. Bartlett, January 2, 1893. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Archival evidence revealed that Clayton had a gas-fueled boiler in the basement to supply hot water. The gas-fired range was simpler to use and maintain than earlier coal-fired stoves. And that cold storage room? It was basically a zinc-lined walk-in refrigerator chilled by big blocks of ice. Many of these features, however, had disappeared completely from Clayton’s kitchen by the 1980s. In order to give visitors a sense of the modern Victorian kitchen, restoration staff had a huge task ahead of them.

Receipt for “one refrigerator room” purchased for Clayton from Wickes Refrigerator Company, April 13, 1891. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

The supervising architectural firm, The Office of Thierry W. Despont, recommended a full-scale restoration. The architects used the original Osterling blueprints documents to assist in returning the space to its appearance at the turn of the twentieth century. Contractors removed all the contemporary fixtures from the spaces and tore out the linoleum flooring and shag carpeting. Workers laid new tile flooring in the kitchen and scullery, carefully matching the colors and basket weave pattern of the original encaustic tile in the butler’s pantry.

Workers laying new tile in kitchen at Clayton, c. 1989.

Finished floor, c. 1989.

Left: Original encaustic tile in butler’s pantry. Right: Reproduction tile in kitchen.

Contractors framed new walls to recreate the cold storage room and also constructed cabinets to match the originals and restore the appearance of the scullery. In order to use as much original material as possible, workers moved white tiles from the unrestored third and fourth floor bathrooms to rebuild the stove alcove and repair damaged and missing sections of the tiled walls. Painters applied a fresh coat to the canvas wall coverings, recreating the original golden mustard color discovered during paint analysis.

Scullery during restoration c. 1989.

Cabinetmaker constructing new cabinets in scullery, c. 1989.

Once the architectural fixtures were restored, curatorial staff embarked on furnishing the space to evoke the feeling of the Frick family’s modern Victorian kitchen. An archival photograph of the kitchen circa 1901 from the family archives gave researchers a sense of the interior space. In the photograph, Spencer Ford, the family’s chef, sits in a chair next to the range. A simple rag rug lies on the floor and one bare bulb hangs from the ceiling above the range, on top of which sits a copper pot and kettle. Through the doorway to the scullery behind Ford is an open cupboard door. The corner of a sink and what appears to be a rolling stool, perhaps for reaching utensils and pots on high shelves, are visible. Curators also relied on a 1906 inventory of Clayton detailing the kitchen’s contents: 1 extension table, 3 small side tables, 1 rug, 8 chairs, 1 rocker, 1 clock (self winder), and 1 range.

Spencer Ford in the kitchen at Clayton, c. 1901. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Although much of the original porcelain, crystal, and silverware remain at Clayton (much of it on view in the butler’s pantry as it was for more than one hundred years), very few artifacts from the kitchen itself survive. Curators recreated the setting by purchasing furnishings and accessories from local antique stores. Crockery, pots, cookware, and kitchen gadgets were relatively easy to find but one fixture proved more difficult.

Curators sought an appropriate replacement for the original stove at Clayton. Research revealed that the stove next to Spencer Ford in the photograph was a Jewett steel range. No extant examples could be found, but curators did locate a remarkably similar antique cast iron cook stove in excellent condition. The Glenwood Double Oven No. 14 was a high-end model produced by Weir Stove Company in the late nineteenth century. With six burners, two ovens, a broiler, and warming compartments, the Glenwood was a technologically advanced range for the professional cook and a well-suited replacement for Clayton’s kitchen.

The result is a meticulous restoration that conjures the hustle and bustle of a domestic space at the turn of the twentieth century. When visitors see the space today, it evokes the aroma of delicious dishes, the sounds of clanking pots and dishes, and the busy work of the domestic staff who managed daily life at Clayton, some whose names we know and others that have been lost to time. It’s easy to imagine Spencer Ford preparing meals at the range, deliveries arriving at the kitchen door, the butler Joseph Holyrod passing through to the wine cellar in the basement, and maids Briget Conroy and Mary Coyne scurrying to and fro filling trays, stacking plates, and storing pans, ready for the annunciator to ring again. 

Clayton kitchen, c. 2020.


Details of Glenwood Double Oven No. 14.

Kitchen gadgets hanging at Clayton.

This post is part of a series on the restoration of Clayton in recognition of the house museum’s thirtieth anniversary. Click here for the first post and check back throughout the rest of the year for more.
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