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The Wren Room Mystery

What really inspired these mantel carvings in the Wren Room?
The Wren Room
What really inspired these mantel carvings in the Wren Room? (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Back in 1989, Professor of Theater Margaret Spicer had no idea her work on Sanborn Hall's Christopher Wren Room would uncover a decades-old architectural puzzle. "I was a member of the design review committee, which worked on architecture-related issues and renovation projects on campus," Spicer explains. "The Wren Room was in sad shape and needed attention. Because of my work as costume designer and familiarity with historical periods, I knew the room was 17th century in style. So I went to Baker Library to do some research and, lo and behold, there was this image."

Spicer had come across an illustration of the salon at Belton House, in Lincolnshire, England. Its oak paneling, rich carvings, mantelpiece, and elaborate plaster ceiling bore a striking resemblance to Dartmouth's Wren Room.

"These photos were the first hint that the Wren Room related to Belton House," says Spicer, "which made perfect sense because it's such a well known Restoration period house. It was built in 1685-86, in the last days of the reign of Charles II, at the climax of Restoration architecture. When Sanborn House was built, the experts thought Belton was by Christopher Wren [architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London]. Now they know it was designed by an important gentleman architect named William Winde."

Researching historic fabrics for the Wren Room renovations, Spicer met John Buscemi of Boston's Classic Revivals. "Coincidentally, he had a business partner in London, Guy Evans, who did work with the National Trust, which owns Belton. At the time, Guy was working on restoring another room in Belton, so he knew the house, and even more astonishing, he and John were also working on the Vermont State House."

On his next trip to Montpelier, Evans stopped by to visit the Wren Room with Professor Spicer. "Guy paced off the room, said it was definitely smaller, but he recognized architectural details and many elements from Belton House." One of Spicer's students, Kathryn E. Chamberlin '95, later followed up with a more detailed study at Belton itself, which she wrote up as an independent study project while in London for a theater department foreign study program.

Chamberlin concluded that the elaborate fireplace carvings of the Wren Room copied those at Belton. The architectural details were in a similar style, though differently proportioned, and the Wren Room was much smaller in size. "We still don't know who measured the Belton carvings, or who made the copy," Spicer concludes, "or exactly what historic models were used for other spaces in Sanborn House."

Sanborn House was built in 1929 "to promote the interests of the English department" and as a memorial to Edwin David Sanborn, Class of 1832, and his family. Sanborn served as a professor of Latin and Greek, oratory and belles lettres, and was the first holder of the Henry Winkley Professorship of Anglo-Saxon and English Language and Literature. It has spaces in many styles, from a Norman medieval room and a Tudor-style Shakespeare room, to a grand Georgian library. Besides recreating Professor Sanborn's own 19th-century study, Jens Frederick Larson, architect of the larger Baker Library complex of which Sanborn is a part, designed a study for each English professor in a style of his own choosing.

Larson believed that all college buildings should be "museums in themselves" with an educational purpose. Writing of his Baker Library patrons, Larson recalled, "they believed that to surround young men with Beauty is good-a part of their education. Therefore of certain rooms the design, color, and furnishings were studied as problems in the creation of beauty." Clearly, Dartmouth men—and women—have benefited from his efforts ever since.

By PETER WALSH

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Last Updated: 5/30/08