Brices Stump: Pemberton bed chamber rare exhibit

There is a room on the second floor of Pemberton Hall, unlike any other on the Eastern Shore.

Not only does it have one of the rarest of architectural treasures in the nation, it also holds furniture, fabrics and paint colors that took three years of research to assemble.

What had once been a bedroom for two boys, has become the latest restoration showcase at historic Pemberton Hall, an 18th century house in the countryside, near Salisbury, on the Wicomico River.

Since the house was saved from demolition in the 1960s, it has always been the hope of members of the Pemberton Hall Foundation that the rooms be restored to allow visitors a look into the past.

The brick home was built in 1741 by Isaac Handy, a planter and merchant, who is credited with having laid the economic foundation for what would become Salisbury. It was his two grandsons, Henry, 11 and Thomas 9, Wilson said, who shared the bedroom in 1786.

Henry was dead by his 28th birthday in 1803.  

Thomas became become a surgeon working in Vienna and Princess Anne. As for the house and plantation, it would be on the auction block by 1806. With the uncertainties of the War of 1812, Thomas and his family move to Newark, Del.

Their room has been created to reflect the look and tastes of the late 18th century.

Of special interest to members of Pemberton Hall, for decades, has  been the odd molding on the ceiling in a corner of the room.

It is a tester, a wooden frame that once supported bed hanging that went from floor to ceiling. From it, heavy panels could be hung in winter to minimize drafts, or netting during warmer months to keep insects away, according to Bill Wilson, retired educator and artist, and past president of the Pemberton Hall Foundation.

He has served as president, vice president, co-chairman and chairman of the group for the past 44 years. He was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Council.

He, and the late Dr. Robert McFarlin, worked as a team to insist that every bit of restoration work done to the interior and exterior of the plantation house be as authentic as possible.

“That the tester in Pemberton Hall survived more than 250 years is just incredible,” he said. “This is believed to be the only built-in cornice tester frame, existing in its original location, in any house in the United States.” Only two other examples are known. One is in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s period room collection, showing a tester in a room removed from a period house south of Vienna in the 1960s. The other, removed from an Eastern Shore of Virginia, house during demolition, believed to be stored in a barn on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

“All of these ceiling attached cornice tester frames are considered vernacular architectural features unique to the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.

Originally the tester in Pemberton Hall  had decorative “pins” (or inverted finials) at each corner. Vandals broke off the pins, and left only one. Besides being decorative they were used to hold hardware that held up the fabric panels that ran from ceiling to floor around three sides of the bed.

Now Wilson has completed the restoration of the bedchamber, a project that has been 44 years in the making.

The attention that Wilson and McFarlin had for period detail was applied to every single piece of furniture, glassware, prints, linens, bottles, utilitarian items exhibited in the house.

Insisting on absolute authenticity for every reproduction item used in the room, Wilson has spent thousands of hours in research and working with artisans to recreate a “parlor bed chamber” of the late 1700s.

To convey a genuine authentic look and feel, Wilson worked closely with experts at Colonial Williamsburg to determine the right look of everything in the room.

“We had a copy made of the original 18th century bed in our collection. The bed linens, too, are exact handmade reproductions, even the decorative handwoven “rose blanket.” he said.

“The textiles were handwoven by weavers in New York state, to match a design shown in a British painting of the same time period,” he said.

To get the look of the bed hanging exact to the period, Wilson consulted Natalie Larson of Colonial Williamsburg, regarded as an expert in bed chamber fabrics and hangings. True to the period, the panels of the bed hangings are hand-stitched.

A passion for authentic  includes the unique one of a kind reproduction of a mattress support frame, called a “mat,”  made of white oak splints, much like that used in weaving baskets and chair seats. This example was made exclusively for Pemberton Hall by a Colonial Williamsburg basket maker.

Even the wall shelf was specially made for the room. “This matches the original on display in a bed chamber at Monticello, in Virginia,” he said. (To see the bedchambers requires taking a special tour, he said, with two tickets costing $150).

In the corner there’s bow and arrow set, a simple but thought provoking shadow of something that may have been important playthings in the lives of two boys centuries ago.

“The bow and arrows were custom-made, too,” Wilson said. “Little boys then had a fascination with Native Americans.”

“I have really, thoroughly research the different components of this restoration,” Wilson said, “even down to the samples of clothing here the boys would have worn. I want this entire thing to be as accurate as possible.”

Even the colorful reproductions of prints on the wall, used to teach the boys spelling, is accurate to the period. The two egg-shaped pieces of soap the children would have used, from Williamsburg, are true to the 18th century.

The pewter wash bowl and plate, chair and table are genuine period pieces. The iconic leather portmanteau, and green bottle on the table, were both reproduced, by hand, to exacting 18th century standards.

There’s even a fabric book-bag, true to the time period. The books in the room, all hand printed, are reproductions.

Boxes and a leather trunk in the room, suggesting that Henry was packing to return to boarding school in located down-river, are also custom made items to enhance the period look of the bedchamber. There is also a small, but historically important chest.

“This is a Handy family piece. It was given to us by a Handy descendant and it originally came from this house.” It is in the “lumber” or storage closet in the room. “Years ago, before restoration began on the room, the closet door is shown and on the back of it, a drawing, scratched into the paint, of a ship out here in the river. Even today, if you stand at the windows in the bed chamber, you can see the wharf where the ship would have tied up.”

The door and other woodwork in the room, now a light gray color, will be repainted.

“The paint color used in the room, originally, was verdigris. Colonial Williamsburg staff did the paint analysis for us. Originally the base color was a gray,” Wilson said, “but eventually painted verdigris.”

It was a fashionable color of the day, a bright but relaxing green. The colors of the bed hanging compliment the reproduced color on the tester. This was a luxury item, much like the floor cloth that tacks holes in the original pine floor suggest was laid in the 18th century.

The bed chamber door, which opens to the second floor hallway, also opened into a completely different lifestyle for the boy who may have slept on the hallway floor.

When the Handy youngsters shared a bedroom, a slave boy, Moses, about 9, was listed in the estate inventory on their father’s death. Wilson believes that Moses may have been a playmate to the Handy boys, and his sleeping quarters, in the hall, would have been probable if he was also a servant to the boys.

Wilson has placed a rolled-up sleeping mat, a wooden box and contents, a hat and a candlestick in the corner, representing the humble possessions of a slave child.

Because there is such a stark difference between the sleeping spot in the hall and the luxury of the bed chamber just feet away, Wilson has contrasted the lives of slave and slave holder.

“As you can see, this bed chamber takes on greater meaning than decorative arts, paint hues, and the function of objects. It represents customs, daily life, human relationship and interaction, and cornerstones of our nation’s history, family by family, generation by generation,” Wilson said.

Much of the cost of restoring the room was made possible by a matching grant from the Maryland Heritage Area Authority.

A ceremony opening the bed chamber to the public will be at 2 p.m. this Sunday. The room will remain open until 4 p.m. Pemberton Hall is located at Pemberton Historical Park, 27851 Plantation Lane, Salisbury, Md. 21801.

There is no admission charge and visitors can tour the house. When Pemberton Hall was constructed in 1741, this part of what is now Wicomico County was part of Somerset County. In celebration of the 350th anniversary of Somerset County, an exhibit of artifacts, found during archaeological excavation near and around the house, will be displayed and is part of the free tour.

Games and activities for youngsters will be held on the lawn.

Contact Brice Stump at


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