The Renovation of The Mark Twain House Mahogany Suite

January 24, 2022

After an insightful restoration, Mark Twain’s guest rooms are again all about drama.

Text by Tovah Martin    Photography by Robert Benson

Mark Twain was famously ahead of his time. Not only did his 1874 Hartford mansion boast all the bells and whistles (including indoor plumbing) that technology had recently made possible, it was also at the forefront of design. Nearly 150 years later, we’re finally understanding and witnessing the brilliance behind the Mark Twain House & Museum’s Mahogany Suite, thanks to the research of restoration architect David Scott Parker.

With Twain’s input, Edward Tuckerman Potter designed the mansion in 1873 with an 1881 update that included the ground-floor Mahogany Suite, which features a dressed-to-impress bedroom, sitting room, and state-of-the-art bathroom reserved for guests. Spearheading the aesthetic movement that was gathering momentum at the time, Twain collaborated with trendsetters Louis Comfort Tiffany and interior designer Candace Wheeler to bring the majesty of nature indoors through the suite’s decorative arts. From the carpet underfoot to the ceiling paper above, every thread was meant to be cohesive. Unfortunately, only memoirs and letters had preserved the suite’s original decor—period photos didn’t exist—when the Mark Twain House engaged Parker to restore the rooms in 2017. “These rooms were an enigma,” recalls Parker.

Before becoming a museum in the 1960s, the home served various purposes, including as a library and boarding house. The suite’s bespoke wallpaper had been stripped, and the overall scene lacked many of its original elements, so Parker went into sleuth mode, piecing together the suite’s precise DNA through painstaking research about Twain, the home’s original design team, and what was considered fashionable in the late 1800s. Every aspect held challenges and discoveries as Parker worked with conservators from Connecticut-based John Canning & Co. and artisans from the finest design houses to reestablish the details, finishes, and fixtures from the suite’s glory days. For his stellar achievement, Parker received 2021 Bulfinch and Palladio awards. (He was also inducted into the New England Design Hall of Fame last year.)

But for Parker, the real thrill came when the Reformed Gothic furniture Twain and Tiffany envisioned was reinstalled and silver bee wings once again shimmered as if in motion on the Wheeler-designed wallpaper recreated by Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers. Mark Twain would be tickled, especially with the wallpaper. The humorist was invariably serious about his home—and the great outdoors—quipping, “Architects cannot teach nature anything.” But as Parker has proven with this project, they can certainly celebrate it.THe

Restoration architecture:  David Scott Parker, David Scott Parker Architects