For almost half a century, Miriam Hubbard Morris lavished love and protection on her Kalorama Road home--The Lindens.
She made of it a rare work of art. "The finest 18th-century Georgian framed house in the Western Hemisphere," according to Clement E. Conger, curator of the White House and Blair House and chairman of the State Department's Fine Arts Committee.
"The setting and the collection are without peer, above value, because of the combination of the objects, their placement, the historic quality and architectural distinction of the house," said Harold Sack of New York, dean of Americana antique dealers. Sack doubts that such a combination could be put together again. If it could, he estimates the house and its contents would cost between $15 and $20 million to duplicate.
Now, with Mrs. Morris' death June 3, the house and its contents stand in peril, as it did in 1934, before she rescued it.
Her three children want to sell the property--it isn't easy today to maintain mansions. Conger and other friends are trying to find a wealthy purchaser who would open it as a house museum.
Others have suggested the house as headquarters for a learned society, or as a residence for the secretary of state, or as the home for a another connoisseur who wants a Washington presence. For some years, Mrs. Morris and her children had been concerned with the house's future. Spokesmen for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Smithsonian Institution said Mrs. Morris had discussed the house but had never formally offered to give it to either.
For Mrs. Morris it was home for her three children, 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She turned it into a three-dimensional lesson in American decorative arts for the more than 50,000 foreign and American visitors who went through the house.
The house gave her an identity, a career. "She was like a queen, the Queen of The Lindens. She was a tiny woman, but the Lindens made her stand tall," said a friend.
The house cost $14,000 when Miriam and George Maurice Morris, an international attorney, bought it in 1934. It stood near a factory in Danvers, Mass. It had already lost its carved paneled drawing room, sold to the Kansas City Museum. The staircase and the elaborately printed wallpaper were the next to go.
Mrs. Morris knew just what she wanted. She came from a long line of women who also knew. Her grandmother's home is now a museum and civic center in Mexico, Miss. Her mother, Etta Hubbard, restored Widehall, a 1769 house in Chestertown, Md. Mrs. Hubbard used to tell about the consternation she caused in Chestertown in 1910. "The neighbors would say, 'Mrs. Hubbard bought that old, ramshackle house and she's furnishing it with secondhand furniture.' "
Miriam Morris, with her marriage to George Maurice Morris in 1914, began to collect American antiques.
The Morrises had gone so far as to commission a reproduction of an early Williamsburg house for a lot they had bought on Kalorama Road. But the 1929 crash came, so they decided to wait. In the meantime, Mrs. Morris thought of buying, not a reproduction, but a period house, preferably one threatened, to move to her Kalorama lot. To this purpose, she asked Walter Mayo Macomber, once architect of the Williamsburg restoration, to help her.
"We found The Lindens was for sale at the same time," said Macomber, who at present has a commission to redesign the Monroe, Madison and Henry Clay rooms in the State Department's diplomatic suites.
Macomber had known the house. He had played in its garden as a child. As a young architect, he had measured and studied it.
The Lindens--named after the surrounding trees--was built in 1754 as a summer home by Robert Hooper, a merchant. He was called "King Hooper" because of his imported coach with crest and his Tory politics. After the Boston Tea Party, he lent the house to Gen. Thomas Gage, the last governor of colonial Massachusetts. A hole in the front door came from a bullet fired at Gage.
The house, almost derelict, had been bought by Israel Sack, the dealer who was one of the first to specialize in American antiques.
"My father sold the drawing room the paneling and trim to the museum," said Harold Sack, who with his family continues the business in New York. "Then he had it reproduced for the house's buyer. Our records show it cost $2,500 to copy."
Macomber supervised taking the house apart. The work took seven weeks. "It helped that much of the trim was mortised and tendoned. We could knock out the old pegs. We also saved 10 or 15 pounds of handmade nails. We took the doors and its frames off in one piece. Upstairs, by one door, we found a child's handprint, pressed into the original plaster. I carefully cut it out and when we replastered, we set it in the same place."
The three sets of French wallpaper by du Four et LeRoy, from the first third of the 19th century, were carefully removed, restored and rebacked.
The house was loaded on five boxcars for its trip to Washington. Macomber remembers it cost $7,000 to take apart and ship. "Fortunately, there was a lull then at Williamsburg, so I was able to get carpenters and other craftsmen I'd trained to do the work."
Construction began in 1935 and Macomber faced the task of putting in 10 bathrooms, closets, kitchens, laundry rooms and central heating without interrupting the tapestry of the house.
Fortunately, the chimneys went up through the house, with paneled doors on each side, into chimney closets. So the baths were tucked away in the closets.
The fac,ade was redone as it had been originally, by a rare technique. The fac,ade of the house was made of wood cut in ashlar form to resemble stone. This was then covered with a varnish and sand thrown against it. Succeeding layers of paint and sand made it look like stone.
The front of the house has giant Corinthian columns, with elaborately carved capitals, and a pedimented bay. On the rear fac,ade, the door (directly opposite from the front one for cross ventilation) is topped with a carved pineapple, the symbol of hospitality. Above the door is a Palladian window.
The rare French wallpapers were reinstalled in the dramatic hall, with another section hand-painted to fill. The staircase has balusters in three different twists and spirals. The floors are stenciled and painted--more such decoration, Mrs. Morris said, than in any other house in the country. In the red upstairs guest room, a circle and a half-circle decoration are thought to guard against witchcraft. All the doors are double-crossed against witches and the hinges are in the double Heaven and Hell shape.
In November 1937, 33 months after the move, the house was finished and the Morrises held a series of open houses.
Mrs. Morris carefully decorated the house to hide its modern necessities. The house is lit with an invention from Winterthur: real wax candles wired for electricity. In the bedrooms, the four poster beds have reading lights built into the valances. Telephones hide in 18th-century boxes, or behind a sofa pillow. So carefully was the work done that the house hasn't been repainted since 1937, except in the dining room, where Mrs. Morris disliked the original color. The children remember the rush to hide their radios and hair dryers when the house was being shown.
Mr. Morris' collection of armorial china has a history. Mrs. Morris saw the china when driving through London. She came back to the shop and found the china bore her mother's Ross family crest. Mrs. Hubbard bought the china.
In the drawing room are two of the house's great pieces: a Philadelphia Chippendale sofa with a rare pointed back and a rare Chippendale secretary made in Maryland, with rosettes in the pediment. Many of the fabrics in the house are themselves antique materials.
As the years went on, it was hard to separate Mrs. Morris from the house and the house from Mrs. Morris. She lectured about the house abroad for the State Department. She opened the house to antique buffs. She sat on preservation committees. She was the first woman on the board of the State Department Fine Arts Committee.
Mrs. Morris used to say her tastes grew earlier and earlier. In her bedroom are a circa 1700 William and Mary style highboy and a Queen Anne burl walnut highboy. The bed and curtains are hung with 16th-century English crewel work.
Even through her last illness, she would open her eyes with surprise and say "how lovely those chairs are, how beautiful that chest-on-chest." The room comforted her to her death.