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The Victoria Mansion, formerly the Morse-Libby Mansion, is one of the best examples of the Italian Villa style in Maine and in the United States. Moreover, it attests to the growth of Portland in the 1850s, an era when railroading, shipbuilding, and a lively West Indies trade brought prosperity and wealth to the city. Ruggles Sylvester Morse, who was born in Maine but made his fortune in New Orleans, built this villa as his Portland summer home. Morse chose a site on the corner of Park and Danforth streets, west of fashionable State Street, where many wealthy Portlanders resided. The site abutted the Carroll Mansion and was in proximity to the Samuel P. McLellan House. Both the mansion and attached carriage house were designed by Henry Austin, with the interior decorated by Gustave Herter in his first significant commission.
Completed between 1858 and 1860, Victoria Mansion is asymmetric in form, with a four-story tower rising above the entrance, ornate windows, overhanging eaves, and verandas. The mansion itself is made from brick and veneered with brownstone. The entrance at the base of the tower is framed by pairs of fluted Ionic columns and is topped with a balustrade. This balustrade continues along the top of a recessed porch to the left of the entrance that also features Ionic columns. Round-arched and rectangular windows, in addition to segmental hoods and triangular pediments, showcase the Italianate characteristics of the structure, as do the vermiculated quoins that define the corners of each block of the composition. The window surrounds are ornate and add even more variety to the rich silhouette of the building facade. A carriage house pays homage to the original structure with its triangular roofline and squared cupola. Most noticeable of the similarities between the two structures is the circular window that resembles those on the mansion’s tower.
The interior of the mansion rivals its magnificent exterior. It is elaborately decorated in the Louis XV style. Throughout the first floor are numerous types of wood trim, including Brazilian, rosewood, walnut, and mahogany. The walls and ceilings are decorated with frescoed medallions depicting scenes of life in Italy. The paneled, carved doors are accented by silver-plated knobs and hinges. The “Turkish” smoking room, located on the second floor behind stained glass doors, is one of the earliest in the United States. Recently restored, it is decorated with Moorish-inspired wall paintings and Middle Eastern carpets. The additional floors of the house are adorned with equal lavishness. The mansion was technologically advanced for its time; it had central heating, hot and cold running water, and gas lanterns, including the elaborate gasolier in the entrance hall, which is suspended from the third-floor ceiling forty feet above. The house also featured an intricate servant call system.
Morse died in 1894 and the house and its contents were sold to Joseph R. Libby, a Portland merchant. The Libby family resided there for over thirty years, until 1928. At that point the future of the mansion was uncertain, with demolition a distinct possibility. In 1941 William Holmes purchased the mansion and opened it as a historic house museum called Victoria Mansion, which operates to this day. The carriage house serves as the visitor’s center, museum shop, and exhibit area.
Greater Portland Landmarks. Portland.Portland, ME: Greater Portland Landmarks, 1972.
Palmer, Arlene M. A Guide to Victoria Mansion. Portland, ME: Victoria Mansion, 1997.
Snell, Charles W., “Victoria Mansion,” Cumberland County, Maine. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1970. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
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