My New Old Kentucky Home
The home closely associated with Stephen Collins Foster’s immortal song received a recent restoration that beckons tourists to make a return visit. Lively colors, highly patterned wallpaper and gorgeous carpets bring the house into the 1840s, allowing visitors to picture the house as Foster might have seen it.
By Robyn Davis Sekula
Kentucky Homes and Gardens | May/June 2008
For the past 150 years, there’s been one song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” that reminds everyone who hears it of the Bluegrass State. And there’s one house that comes to mind when the first strains of the song are played: Federal Hill, the house that’s part of My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Nelson County near Bardstown, Ky.
Stephen Collins Foster wrote the song’s music and accompanying lyrics, but he never actually connected the song to the house. Foster, who lived in Pennsylvania, was a relative of the Rowan family, the house’s only family of owners until it became a public museum, and he stayed at the house. But it was Civil War-era soldiers who saw the house and said it reminded them of the song. Thus, for 150 years, Federal Hill has been called My Old Kentucky Home.
No matter how it happened, the house and song are forever entwined, and even more so following a recent interpretation of Federal Hill to the time period of Foster’s visit.
Federal Hill was originally constructed between 1795 and 1818 for Judge John Rowan, who was a U.S. Secretary of State, Senator and was one of Kentucky’s foremost defense attorneys. It is Georgian in style, and originally had 13 rooms.
The house had long been interpreted to the life of Judge John Rowan, its original occupant, says Federal Hill curator Ron Langdon. But that didn’t really fit well with the house’s legacy, since the house was modified after 1840 fire, and most of the furnishings date to about 1840 as well. About 75 percent of the home’s contents are Rowan family items. So now, the house is interpreted as if John Rowan Jr. and Rebecca Rowan, the original owner’s son and daughter-in-law, were still living there, entertaining Foster; the period of its interpretation is now 1840 to 1855. The house incorporates the second generation of Rowans’ tastes and interests where appropriate.
John Rowan Jr. was prominent, too, like his father, serving as ambassador to Italy in 1848. He died in 1853, after a fall from a second-story window at Federal Hill, leaving Rebecca behind to raise nine children. She often wrote to Col. William P. Boone, a relative, to ask for money to feed the children and repair the house.
Langdon gives Rebecca Rowan much of the credit for preserving the home and its contents. “She is our hero,” Langdon says. “After John Junior died, she kept the house together under very adverse circumstances.”
The $1 million restoration was made possible by a generous anonymous foundation, which also paid for a renovation at Waveland, another state park property. Langdon presided over the renovation of Waveland as well, and came to Federal Hill as its first full-time curator, without any other duties, in 2006.
Langdon’s task at Federal Hill was to create an early Victorian look in the home. Langdon turned to the DeCioccio Showroom in Cincinnati to help create the right look. DeCioccio sells Scalamandre and other high-end wallpapers with the appropriate historic look for the home. Visitors are often surprised by the use of wallpaper and wall-to-wall, patterned carpet (called fitted carpet in Victorian times) in this latest restoration, but it would have been commonly used in wealthy homes in the mid-19th century, Langdon says.
A tour for the 30,000 or so guests that visit Federal Hill each year begins with the front hall, which is where the Rowan family would have received visitors. The hallway contains formal portraits of the home’s first owners. A Scalamandre wallpaper in a stylized block pattern, reproduced especially for Federal Hill, graduates all the way to the third floor, and a swirl-pattern carpet in navy blue and gold adds another formal touch to the area.
In the best parlor, which is where the Rowans would have entertained, a series of 11 watercolors and a pair of Old Paris vases that they purchased in Italy decorate the room. The most interesting souvenir of their trip to Italy was a medallion that was given to John Rowan Jr. by Pope Pious 9th. Rowan helped the Pope escape from an assassination attempt while they were living in Italy. Historic photos indicate the medallion was hanging in the parlor in the same spot it is today. A brightly colored fitted carpet and unexpected rainbow-striped wallpaper bring color and style to the room.
The home’s back parlor, also referred to as the library, would have been used by the family when they wanted private time together for playing games, reading and relaxing in the evenings. The room has a decidedly religious theme, with Gothic-styled wallpaper and carpet with a cross-style design, in tribute to the fact that Rebecca Rowan converted to Catholicism while in Italy. Judge Rowan’s standing secretary, often referred to as a butler’s desk, has found a home in this room, along with his liquor set.
The dining room is one of Langdon’s favorite rooms for its unusual wallpaper and use of strong color. The wallpaper has a stylized palm tree design rising tall above a wallpaper balustrade. A bright ruby carpet adds a punch of color to the room. The dining room table and sideboard were original to the Rowan family. “We wanted something dramatic in here,” Langdon says. “They had just returned from Italy, which would have been the first time they had seen palm trees. The balustrade evokes the feeling of being outdoors, which they would have done in Italy.”
Upstairs, three bedrooms and a sewing room each display a distinctive style. Rebecca Rowan’s bedroom has the brightest palate in the house with orange as the dominant color. The surprisingly vibrant room has a cone-themed wallpaper created by Ohio historic wallpaper company Wolff house, and borders by Scalamandre in shades of green and gold. The carpet’s pattern is a copy of a historic carpet sample found in a home in Kentucky. It was produced in the early 20th century in red and blue, but for Federal Hill, it was produced in its original orange, yellow and black diamond pattern.
The fabric in the room is a large-scale floral on polished cotton fabric. Although by today’s standards cotton is a humble fabric, in the early Victorian period, much of the cotton was imported, and would have been a big step up from the homespun linens used in less wealthy homes, Langdon said. The half-tester, Rococo Revival bed is part of a five-piece set that was part of the Rowan family. A portrait over the mantle shows one of Rebecca’s daughters, and a smaller painting in the room depicts Madge Rowan Frost, who sold the house to the private foundation in 1922 to allow it to become a public museum. In 1936, the State of Kentucky took over maintenance and care of the house and the surrounding 235 acres.
Another bedroom is interpreted as Judge Rowan’s bedroom. The gray wallpaper with small flowers is decidedly more demure than the bright flowers next door in Rebecca’s room. Across the hallway, a simple white paper with blue flowers and an ivy border was selected for the children’s bedroom, which is decorated as if for summer months.
Langdon believes the restoration was successful. He wants visitors to learn more about life in the Rowan’s lifetime, and creating the right look for the home is a large part of that effort. “We are very grateful for the funding to create this important monument to the Rowan family, and to Stephen Collins Foster,” Langdon says. “We hope that generations of Kentuckians and the visitors we have from around the world learn more about life in the 19th century and have a deeper understanding of American history in general from their visit.”
Federal Hill is located in My Old Kentucky Home State Park, 501 East Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown, Ky. Federal Hill is open for tours seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June through August and open daily 9 a.m. - 4:45 p.m. the rest of the year. Tours of Federal Hill cost $5.50 for adults, $5 for senior citizens, $3 for children between the ages of six and 12, and are free for children six and under. Federal Hill is closed Thanksgiving Day, the week of Christmas and New Year’s Eve and Day. For more information, call the park at (502) 348-3502.