In 1927, Edward Hopper must have set up his easel on the corner of Danforth Street and Park Street in Portland, just across from what was then known as the Libby House, and what is now the Victoria Mansion, a national historic landmark.
By then, the house had seen the end of its glory days, and only the last Libby daughter, Alice Libby Brown, lived there with her husband Merle. Gone were the days of the lavish neighborhood parties that its tenants so often hosted, and the mansion had taken on an air of retirement.
Though now inquisitive tourists regularly mill through its doors, not much has changed at the Libby house since Hopper set about painting titled "Libby House, Portland, Maine." I caught the mansion on an inopportune day, when the haze of a fall rainstorm darkened its brownstone exterior. At the gift shop, the staff—which included two Bowdoin alums—told me it was a "cruise ship day," so they were likely to be busy with tourists who had just pulled into the Portland harbor, eager to stretch their legs and see the national landmark.
The house looks and feels almost exactly as it must have when Mrs. Brown lived there. My tour guide, Greg Sundik, explained that much of the house has been kept intact, though "150 years of patina, dust and dirt on the walls" have added a yellowed tint to the weathered interior. As it stands now, the mansion is nearly indistinguishable from Hopper's rendition of it. The only noticeable difference is outside the front door; where Hopper saw a wrangled, decapitated tree, now stands a "Do Not Enter" sign and telephone lines flank the building's exterior.
The Victoria Mansion was originally built in 1858 for Ruggles Morse, a New Orleans hotelier, who was looking for a summer house to escape the heat of the south. When you walk into the house, it's hard to see past the glare of his gilded initials, which he had emblazoned all over the walls and furniture, "in case anyone forgets whose house it is," said Sundik sardonically.
Morse was as southern as they come—the Confederate Army made him an honorary colonel when he retired—and he made no effort to hide his allegiance when he moved North. A portrait of Robert E. Lee hangs prominently in his gothic library, and the state symbol of Louisiana is embedded into a stained glass window—a bold move in the Civil War years. French mirrors, ornate Italian marble fireplaces, and elaborate carpets were household staples for the Morse family. Large wood panels made of the now-extinct American Chestnut line the walls of the dining room, and in the Turkish smoking room on the second floor, it's still possible to light your cigar on one of the golden gasoliers.
Oil panels featuring three of the four cardinal virtues—Justice, Fortitude, and Prudence—greet visitors entering the house. The one missing virtue is temperance, which Morse purposely omitted because his fortune relied almost entirely on a dearth of it among his debauched hotel patrons.
Ironically, Alice Libby Brown is remembered in particular for her devoted commitment to the temperance cause, and it's rumored that when the Libbys first moved into the house they immediately set about pouring out the remnants of Morse's wine cabinet, which he always kept lavishly stocked.
Shortly after Morse's death in 1893 the house was put on the market for $20,000. A June 22, 1894 article in The Portland Daily Advertiser titled "The Morse House is Sold: Bought by Mr. J.R. Libby for a Residence" reports, "It will be a pleasure to see it again inhabited, not only to residents in the immediate vicinity, but to all good citizens of Portland who have the interest and welfare of the city at heart."
Libby moved into the mansion with his wife and five children, of whom Alice was the youngest. Compared to the rest of the family, not much is known about the last Libby sister.
"Her sister Mary was mouthy, so they know a lot more about her," said Arlene Palmer Schwind, curator of the Victoria Mansion.
A July 14, 1967 interview with Mrs. Brown in the Portland Evening Express offers much of the information that is currently known about the house's last tenant.
"Mrs. Brown was married in the upstairs parlor because illness confined her father to the second floor," the article says. "After the ceremony, she came down the beautiful flying staircase of her home."
"It was a wonderful life," said Brown in the interview.
Alice and Merle moved out in 1929, and by 1940, at the tail end of the Depression, the house was in danger of being demolished. It's likely that the Libbys never knew and hardly suspected that their home would be the subject of a painting.
"I don't know that they knew about it," said Palmer Schwind of the Hopper painting. "I think he kind of just set up outside." Palmer Schwind said she didn't even know about the Hopper painting "until some years ago, when somebody touring came in and recognized it." The visitor then sent the museum a print of the Hopper work in the mail, which now hangs in Palmer's office.
Hopper only painted two scenes of Portland in all his time in Maine, and we don't know why he was so enamored of the Libby House—it's unlikely that he knew all of the history behind it. The house is now more than twice as old as it was when Hopper painted it in 1927, but it's still not hard to imagine him standing on the corner setting up to paint as Alice Libby Brown peered out one of the mansion's large Victorian windows