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A glimpse of historic New England

Visiting Pendleton House at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum is a little bit like touring New England's many historic estates in just one stop.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Visiting Pendleton House at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum is a little bit like touring New England's many historic estates in just one stop.

The museum's treasures boast lineages from around the region. In one room, a desk from Connecticut is paired with two side chairs from New York City. In another room, a tea table from Newport sits near a mahogany easy chair from Boston.

Tucked next to the RISD Museum's main gallery, Pendleton House is devoted to American decorative arts. Built in 1906 to replicate the interior of antique collector Charles Pendleton's own home - which still stands around the corner - Pendleton House was the country's first exhibit wing dedicated to the decorative arts.

It now holds much of RISD's decorative arts collection, which includes antique silver, porcelain and furniture.

Items from the collection are not merely displayed on shelves and in cases. Taking advantage of the space they have, curators display the antiques in ways they might have been used. Dining room furniture is displayed next to porcelain dishes. A bedroom is made cozy with a quilt, Oriental rug and large easy chairs.

The collection includes multiple pieces from the Newport furniture workshops that flourished during the colonial period, including a desk constructed in the 18th century by renowned furniture-maker John Goddard. Only nine such desks are known to exist, said Jayne Stokes, acting curator of decorative arts at the museum.

The museum's silver collection shines in a small exhibit room on the second floor. Much of the display is devoted to a unique silver set made in Providence by the Gorham Company during the 19th century.

The 700-piece set includes pieces with two distinctly different styles: Asian-style dishes, which were in vogue at the time, and classic Renaissance-style dishes and serving pieces.

"They're amazingly intricate," Stokes said. "It is the only one of the great, grand late-19th century service sets that's still intact."

The Gorham collection includes a silver, wood and bronze desk that sits at the end of the second-floor hallway.

The desk is one-of-a-kind, Stokes said, and was worth $25,000 in 1915, when it was made for the St. Louis World's Fair with almost 10,000 hours of labor.

Portraits from the museum's collection hang throughout. Featured artists include notable American painters James Earl, Thomas Sully and John Singleton Copley.

Quirky pieces contribute elements of whimsy to the exhibits. In one of the front rooms, Charles Pendleton's felt-covered card table sits, ready for a game; Pendleton was a serious gambler who kept homes near casinos, including one in Newport. On the second floor, a spinning wheel is used as the back of a gleaming wood chair that was made in Hartford, Conn.

Pendleton willed his collection of English and American antiques to RISD in 1904, but he required that the institution build a fireproof exhibit space for them.

Though it was constructed with cement, tile and hard plaster to be a modern and protective home for Pendleton's treasures, the brick building looks like any other historic Benefit Street home from the outside. The exterior was modeled on the 1821 Pickman House in Salem, Mass. Inside, the "house" lacks the bathrooms and kitchen that would make it a livable space, but the Oriental rugs and historic quilts scattered throughout make it seem a place in which Pendleton might have lived.

A Rhode Island native, Pendleton studied to be a lawyer, but his true love was antiques, Stokes said. He traveled to workshops around the country first to expand his collection and then on behalf of friends who admired his taste. And while other members of high society were interested only in European antiques, Pendleton focused on American works, unusual at the time.

"He had a pretty amazing eye," Stokes said.

Exhibits of decorative arts are important to understanding history, said Laura Urbanelli, interim director of the RISD Museum.

"Because they are everyday objects, even if they are special everyday objects, they tell us a lot about the lives of people and the cultures that came before us," Urbanelli said.