Visiting the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts
Located in Holyoke, Massachusetts, at the foot of the Berkshires, is one of the finest examples of Victorian-era architecture in the region. Built-in 1869 by William Skinner, this beautiful home and gardens were owned by the Skinner family until 1959, when daughter Catherine Skinner Kilborne and her heirs gave the Wistariahurst to the City of Holyoke with the stipulation that the home be used for cultural and educational purposes. Today, the Wistariahurst Museum is dedicated to preserving the culture and history of Holyoke and makes for a fascinating visit.
Visiting the Museum
Today, the Wistariahurst Museum is open to the public by guided tour only, for the modest cost of $7 for adults ($5 for Holyoke residents). The gardens are open to the public for viewing daily until dusk and are free of charge.
The Italian Renaissance Music Room, which was added to the house by Belle early in 1914, is available today for lectures, concerts, wedding rehearsals, and ceremonies. The French Beaux Grand Staircase also added during Belle’s expansion of the home, makes for a perfect backdrop for wedding photos as does the beautiful garden. The craftsmanship of the staircase is absolutely amazing. With no visible means of support and its unique shape, it certainly added to the grandness of this beautiful home.
A tour of the Wistariahurst will take visitors into many of the 26 rooms in the house including the library, bedrooms, the dining room, conservatory, music room, and the stunning great room. The vaulted ceilings, parquet floors, leather and silk-covered walls, exquisite woodwork, along with the extensive collection of 19th century and early 20th century furnishings and artwork make the museum a must-visit for anyone interested in the Victorian Era.
The Wistariahurst was first built in 1869 in the Skinnerville section of Williamsburg, Massachusetts by silk manufacturer William Skinner. Unfortunately, a devastating flood in 1874 destroyed much of the town but spared the home of William and Sarah Skinner with minor damage. At this time the Skinner’s decided to move their home and business to Holyoke where the house still stands today.
William Skinner was a very prominent and successful silk manufacturer and his mill in Holyoke was recognized nationally for producing some of the finest quality silk and satin products. At its peak, his mill employed over 2,000 people and was the economic engine of this growing community. As a manufacturer of silk and satin, William Skinner was proud of the fact that his employees were considered to be among the best dressed workers in the area.
Upon moving the home to Holyoke in 1874, Sarah Skinner embarked on a 25-year transformation of the new property, which basically took an entire city lot and transformed it into a showpiece property. It was Sarah who had the wisteria vine planted on the property and along the house and by the end of the 19th century, this flowering vine covered much of the structure and became the trademark of the home.
In 1901, the name Wistariahurst started appearing on Sarah’s stationary and the name has been used ever since. For those who may be wondering about the name, it is the combination of “Wisteria”, the flowering vine pictured in the photo above and “hurst”, which is the old English word for home.
In 1902 William Skinner died and six years later Sarah also passed away leaving the house to their two unmarried children, William and Belle (there were seven Skinner children total). For the next twenty years, it was Belle who continued the transformation of the property and she not only enlarged the house but also continued her mother’s love of gardening and greatly enhanced the grounds.
In 1928, Belle died unexpectedly of pneumonia at the age of 61 while vacationing in Paris. For the next three decades, the Skinner family continued to occupy the house until Belle’s sister, Katharine Skinner Kilborne and her heirs granted the property to the City of Holyoke in 1959. Since that time, the house has been owned and operated by the City of Holyoke and used for cultural and educational purposes.
For years my wife, Theresa Butler DeGiulio, has been telling me the story about how her great grandfather, John Baptist Russett, was the craftsman who built the grand spiral staircase in the Wistariahurst House. Not familiar with the history of Holyoke and the Skinner family home I never really gave it much thought. Finally, in August of 2012, my wife managed to get a good part of her family together for a visit to the museum. The tour that we took with Julie, our very knowledgeable guide, was fascinating in every respect.
Hoping to learn more about the grand staircase that John Russett crafted, we learned from Julie that the museum actually knew very little about who had built the spiral staircase. All they knew was that it most likely was done by a local craftsman, but they did not have a name. Our visit, and the story told by my mother-in-law, Mary Alice Butler, the granddaughter of John Russett, connected the dots and added one more chapter to tell in the amazing history of this house.
Interesting Facts About the Wistariahurst
- The Wistariahurst is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- The driveway that leads to the entrance of the Wistariahusrt is paved with shale slabs that contain dinosaur tracks. The tracks had been quarried from a discovery not far from the Wistariahurst in Holyoke in the early 1900’s.
- The Italian Renaissance Music Room that was added to the house in 1914 by Belle Skinner contained over 80 antique instruments that Belle collected from all over the world. The instruments are now on display at the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments.
- The Wistariahurst conservatory contains a Night-blooming Cereus, which is one of the strangest plants imaginable. It blooms just once per year, at night, for just six hours. As luck would have it we were told that they expected the Cereus to flower on the evening that we visited the Wistariahurst. Although we did not get to witness this, it sure seemed liked divine intervention that we picked this day for our visit.
- The conservatory also contains a beautiful stained-glass peacock that is believed to be by Louis Tiffany. The stained glass window was installed in 1913.
- John Baptist Russett, the craftsman who built the beautiful spiral staircase in the Wistariahurst was originally from Canada. He lived in the Willimansett section of Chicopee. He was born sometime in the early 1870’s and died sometime between 1948 – 1950.
- The Wistariahurst contains what is referred to as “The Leather Room”. It’s not what you think. The walls of William Skinner’s bedroom are covered in Spanish leather, embossed and hand painted with gold gilding, which was done by the Baldwin Brother’s of New York City. The cost in 1912 was a little over $2,000 and the museum still has the original receipt.
- The Wistariahurst contains an elevator, which was very unusual for a home built during this period. The Otis elevator, although small, was used by William Skinner when he became unable to climb the stairs to the upper floors.
- Sarah Skinner’s maiden name was Sarah Allen and she was a descendant of the famous writer and Revolutionary War patriot, Ethan Allen.
- The Skinner family legacy in western Massachusetts extends well beyond the Wistariahurst. The family’s philanthropic gifts to the community touched many people and included the construction of a chapel, the city library, a gymnasium, a hospital and even a state park.
If you find yourself in western Massachusetts and are looking for a unique and interesting way to spend a couple of hours while learning about the culture and history of this area then by all means pay a visit to the Wistariahurst. The guides, Julie and Karen, are extremely knowledgeable and will take you on a fascinating journey through the history of the Skinner family and the magnificent home that they left to this community.
© 2012 Bill De Giulio