Dressing Philadelphia’s Finest Furniture: Upholstered, Covered and Hung

Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tuesday, September 9, 2014Mini-exhibit: 7:30pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Waln Latrobe Chair

Waln Family chair designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, ca. 1808. Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with gift (by exchange) of Mrs. Alex Simpson, Jr. and A. Carson Simpson, and with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Raley and various donors, 1986

Benjamin Latrobe portrait

Portrait of Benjamin Henry Latrobe by Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1805. Maryland Historical Society

Waln chair restoration

Waln chair restoration in progress

Soon after their marriage in March, 1805, Philadelphians William and Mary Willcocks Waln retained British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820) to design and build a new style mansion at the corner of Seventh and Chestnut Streets. After three years of construction, Latrobe began to design the furniture and the painted wall ornament for the drawing room — the social center of the house. The drawing room furniture, all that is left of the house that was razed in 1843, embodies the aspirations of its designer and the merchant who commissioned the furniture.

While the Walns’ furniture has long been admired for its sleek profiles and lavishly painted surfaces, the upholstery was also shockingly innovative. The Walns’ drawing room furniture has been the subject of a five-year examination, analysis and conservation treatment by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Documentary research has utilized period design books to complement the physical evidence left on the chairs. The history of upholstery and upholsterers in Philadelphia also helped provide information for reupholstering the Waln family chairs. Ms Kirtley will focus on the Waln furniture’s upholstery, the most crucial element of a room’s design for 18th and early 19th century Philadelphia patrons.

Dolley Madison, formerly a Philadelphian, was so smitten with Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s growing — and glowing — reputation that she retained him to refurbish the President’s House for her. When the Madisons’ inaugurated their drawing room on New Year’s Day of 1810, Washington society was enthralled by the glamorous new style that established the White House as a fashion setter, as well as the seat of power.

With the assistance of Benjamin Latrobe, Mrs. Madison introduced a new patriotically themed iconography to the nation’s seat of government. Mrs. Madison also established the executive mansion (later called the White House following the British occupation of 1814) as a style showcase. Mary Todd Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt (with the assistance of the Herter Brothers), and Jacqueline Kennedy later restyled those same interiors to set new standards for interior decor.

Alexandra Kirtley graduated from Hamilton College with a degree in art history, and interned for curator Margaret Hofer at the New-York Historical Society. She then earned a master’s degree from Winterthur’s program in early American culture. Her Winterthur thesis provided the topic of a Chipstone article, “Survival of the Fittest: The Lloyd Family’s Furniture Legacy” (2002). After graduation, she attended the Attingham summer school, then became a research assistant at Winterthur and coordinated the Delaware Antiques Show. Since 2001, she has occupied a series of progressively more responsible curatorships at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ms Kirtley wrote the introduction to The 1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book: An Introduction and Guide to Prices of Cabinet and Chair Work (2005) and Treasures of American and English Painting and Decorative Arts in the Julian Wood Glass Collection (2010). She has contributed to both the Chipstone ceramics and furniture publications, “A New Suspect: Baltimore Cabinetmaker Edward Priestley (1778–1837)” (2000); “Catalogue Raisonné of Bonnin and Morris Porcelain” (2007); and “From Apprentice to Master: The Life and Career of Philadelphia Cabinetmaker George G. Wright” (2007) with Clark Pearce and Catherine Ebert.

The Magazine Antiques published Ms Kirtley’s “The 1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book Rediscovered” (May 2005); “The Painted Furniture of Philadelphia: A Reappraisal” (May 2006); “Philadelphia Empire Furniture” (April 2007); “Contriving the Madisons’ drawing room: Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the furniture of John and Hugh Finlay (December 2009); “Living with Antiques: Pennsylvania Style” (January/February 2010); “New light on Philadelphia cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck” (September/October 2010); and “Fit for Any Amusement: A Reed Organ by Emilius Nicolai Scherr” (May/June 2011). Her contributions to Antiques and Fine Arts are “New Discoveries in Baltimore Painted Furniture” (2002); “The Lloyd Family Furniture Revisited” with Mary McGinn and Thomas Heller (2003); and “A New Discovery: The Hollingsworth Family Sofa Revealed” (Spring 2007) with David deMuzio.

Alexandra Kirtley spoke to the Forum about “ ‘A Grand and Elegant House and Furniture’: Furnishing the Cadwalader’s Philadelphia House, 1770–1775” in 2007. In 2004, she presented “Procured of the Best and Most Fashionable Materials: The Furnishings of the Lloyd Family of Maryland, 1750–1850.”

7:30pm mini-exhibit

Drape the mini-exhibit with your fabrics. Bring a curtain, an upholstered chair or footstool, or even fabric samples.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.