Love's legacy

Historic Clouds Hill hosts ‘100 Years of Romance’

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You don’t want to get married on Saturday, as it is unlucky.

That was the belief in the late 1800s and the beginning of the 20th century.

Monday, by contrast, was the day to tie the knot if you wanted money, says Anne Holst, who lives in the Victorian home built as a wedding gift for Elizabeth Ives Slater by her father, William Smith Slater, on her marriage to Alfred Augustus Reed Jr. in 1872.

Factoids like these and many more are all part of “100 Years of Romance,” which will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. this coming Saturday and Sunday and again at the same time the following weekend at Clouds Hill Museum – that’s Holst’s house – on Post Road in the Cowesett section of Warwick, not all that far from Division Street and East Greenwich.

Stars of the event are wedding dressings dating from the 1830s to the 1990s. But there’s so much more than lace, long trains, tight bodices, hats, gloves and shoes. There are stories to go with the 15 to 20 dresses to be displayed on mannequins or gently laid out in boxes on beds, as they are too delicate. The names of the wedding couple accompany each display, such as those of Sarah Godfrey, whose family lived in a house that still stands near St. Gregory the Great Church, and Albert Essex of West Warwick. They were married on April 17, 1929.

The dress Sarah wore reached just beyond the knees. It was short and, as Holst points out, in keeping with the style of the Roaring ’20s.

On a recent visit, Holst reaches into another box to lift a dress with fine needlework and gold braid.

“This has got to be a Tirrochi,” she says lifting it to display its swirls cascading down its front like waves.

Tirrochi?

Holst tells the story of the so named “Wedding Cake House” in Providence, which was run by the Tirrochi sisters who came to Rhode Island from Italy. They were skilled seamstresses, and the house was renowned as the establishment where well-to-do women and high society members went to have their dresses made from the early 1900s to the 1940s, Holst said.

After the death of the two sisters in the 1980s, an antiques dealer was called in to look over the house as part of closing the estate. What he found was a shop filled with patterns, bolts of fine cloth from Paris and Italy, dresses and lists of clients. He realized he was stepping back into time and didn’t touch anything. The Rhode Island School of Design and University of Rhode Island were contacted and the shop recorded and contents preserved. As the name of Anne’s mother, Nancy Allen Holst, was on the list, she was contacted and learned of the find.

But to say this romantic tour is made up of stories and dresses is to ignore the feel of the place. Clouds Hill is a remarkable house that exudes elegance and an era when craftsmanship was exalted.

Holst opens another box to lift out the wedding dress worn by Minera Slater (1809-1834) when she married John Orne Greene (1799-1885) on May 6, 1833, in Slatersville.

“I think that’s the dress she’s wearing in the picture,” Holst says, walking to the hallway and a portrait of Minera done by one of the itinerant portrait artists of the time, William Steere. Minerva wears an uneasy expression as if she’s not sure whether to embrace the future. Indeed, she had reason, for her daughter born Nov. 20, 1834, died eight days later – soon to be followed by Minerva, who died of severe peritonitis on Dec. 1.

Holst said that since she initiated “100 Years of Romance” about eight years ago, people have offered to give family wedding dresses for display. Running short on space to store them all, she now only accepts dresses that predate 1929, although she is on the hunt for silk dresses made shortly after World War II. Silk could not be had during the war as it all went into making parachutes. Soon after the war, when there was a surplus of military material, an enterprising company brought up parachutes and sold them with patterns to make wedding dresses. Holst is hopeful of finding one of those dresses – or better yet, a parachute with the accompanying pattern.

As a tip of the hat to the marketing scheme, Holst will have her mother’s parachute – Nancy Allen Holst was an aviator apart from holding the title of the world’s first female fire chief – on display, too.

The curator of this year’s “100 Years of Romance” is Sophia Almeida, a recent URI graduate who has volunteered at Clouds Hill. She is designing all the scenes to be displayed on the first and second floors. It’s a self-directed tour – tickets cost $12 each or $20 per couple at the door – and visitors may spend as much time as they like.

They won’t be leaving without a wedding favor.

Using a recipe she was given in 1950 – she remembers those things – she’s baking pound cake cupcakes made with lots of butter and guaranteed to evoke sweet thoughts for Valentine’s.

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