Homestead at the Emily Dickinson Museum rededicates famous poet’s conservatory

  • The Homestead at the Emily Dickinson Museum at 280 Main St. recently reopened a conservatory that inspired the famous poet. Submitted photo

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2017 9:10:33 PM

AMHERST — From the gardens that surrounded her Main Street home to the plants and flowers she cared for in its conservatory, Emily Dickinson’s poetry was influenced by the natural world.

More than a century after the conservatory was removed from the famed poet’s residence, visitors to the Homestead at the Emily Dickinson Museum at 280 Main St. can get new insights into Dickinon’s craft following the recent rededication and reopening of the 102-square-foot space.

Museum Executive Director Jane Wald said bringing back the conservatory, rebuilt at the museum’s southeast corner over the past year, is part of a long-term master plan aiming to capture Dickinson’s personal interests and show how this imagery made its way into her poetry.

“Plants in her conservatory gave her a way to experience other climates and other expressions of the natural world,” Wald said, observing that Dickinson wrote in an 1866 letter, “My flowers are near and foreign, and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles.”

Lined with period appropriate shelves filled with both local and more exotic plants, Wald said the conservatory is an important interpretative opportunity for the museum. A writing table near the conservatory allowed Dickinson to view the plants inside it — and the outside gardens — as she composed her poetry.

“This helps us understand her dedication to her vocation and the energy and commitment she put into it,” Wald said.

Rebuilding the conservatory came following a successful fundraiser of $100,000, through a significant anonymous challenge grant, and 125 other donors.

The conservatory was added to the home by Dickinson’s father in 1855. But when the family sold the home to the Parke family in 1916, it was taken down. Yet original elements, including three window sashes, a door and shutters, were all saved on-site and then refurbished and incorporated into the project, overseen by architect Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker LLC of Albany, New York and contractor Heritage Preservation Associates of Wales.

Wald said plans for the project began with the photographic evidence of the conservatory and then information supplied by the University of Massachusetts Archaeological Services, which uncovered the original foundation and artifacts. This was followed by developing a construction plan and raising the funds.

Concurrent with the rebuilding of the conservatory was a project to restore the Homestead’s library to its 19th century appearance and eliminating changes the Parke family made after 1916.

This included removing a window and reinstalling a doorway to the conservatory, moving a doorway on an interior wall back to its original location, removing the 20th century floorboards to reveal the 19th century floorboards and dismantling the 20th century hearth, fireplace surround and mantel and replacing it with a reproduction of the fireplace in the parlor.

The changes in the library also included making sure the wallpaper borders and trim treatment were consistent with the look Dickinson experienced. The is the latest in improvements to the museum that has included bringing back the original exterior house colors in 2005, installing a period appropriate fence along Main and Triangle streets in 2009, as well as restoration of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom and creation of an heirloom orchard.

Projects continue, including installing a new fire suppression system at the Evergreens, the home of her brother, Austin Dickinson, and continuing to improve the garden landscape, with UMass archeologists on site in the coming weeks to examine the barnyard area of the property, Wald said.

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