Understated opulence. Is there such a thing? Seems like a contradictory statement, right? But, as we drove up and parked curbside at the Richardson-Bates House Museum, in Oswego, New York, this was my very first thought. It stood silently at the corner, like a sentinel, guarding the past, protecting the treasures that lay within.
The Tuscan Villa, designed and built as a private residence for Maxwell B. Richardson, was finished in two stages. The first, in 1867, was actually an addition to the modest house that already stood on the property. The second stage, begun in 1887, witnessed the demolition of Richardson’s 1840’s structure and later, in 1889, the completion of the villa’s south wing.
Max, who was a lifelong bachelor, lived here with his widowed mother, Naomi Richardson, his divorced sister, Harriet Richardson-Bates and her son, Norman Bates. It seemed an awful lot of house, for such a small family.
We rang the front bell and waited outside for the heavy wood doors to open and allow us entrance. It took a few minutes, but eventually, we were invited inside by Justin White, county historian, and OCSH president, where we were afforded more than a glimpse of the mansion’s breathtaking beauty.
Immediately, we could see the impeccable craftsmanship in the architecture of the home. With 15 foot ceilings, heavy wood archways and richly paneled walls, complete with old-fashioned pocket doors, we could only imagine what it must have been like to live here, so many years ago.
Heavy drapes hung from windows in the front and side rooms. Justin pointed out sections where the late 1800’s rugs and furniture had been restored from years of use, duplicated with exact precision.
On the wall of one room, several oil paintings, aged drastically with time, were suspended on a heavy cord. At the far end, under a lamp’s soft light, we could see where a single masterpiece had been revived, brought back to its original luster, with painstaking care. It was so beautiful, seeing each intricate detail of the artist’s brush.
In the library, I was most drawn to the stereoscope, this one an elaborate piece of ‘furniture’ made from smooth wood, standing about 4 feet high.
Because Maxwell and other members of the family were such lovers of exotic travel, it was their habit, to purchase postcard-type photographs from each overseas visit, to share when they arrived home again. It was easy, to imagine a room full of friends and family taking turns at the stereoscope’s eyepiece while the butler and maid worked their way around the room with drinks and hors-d’oeuvres, soft music as a backdrop.
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In 1945, after Norman’s widow passed away, the children donated the residence and 90 percent of it’s original furnishings to the Oswego County Historical Society. This was in honor of their love of family, their memories of childhood. Most of these are kept amongst rooms on the first floor.
Upstairs, an extensive exhibit of the famous Richardson Theater, Oswego’s premier playhouse during its heyday, is open to the public.
Dollhouses that entertained children for hours on end, portraits of family members and other antiquated pieces of history help tell the story of past generations and the city in general.
Before the doors closed firmly on our afternoon visit to this stunning museum, I imagined a most genteel voice bidding us farewell, inviting us to come again. I nodded my head, acknowledging that, indeed, I’d be back for another visit.
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