Making History in a Victorian Castle
During my junior year at the University of Oregon I dated a guy who lived in a castle. At least we called it a castle, and to a small-town girl the place lived up to that description. Perched at the edge of downtown Eugene, the dwelling's green turret towered above the train station below. It projected an image of elegance and stately decorum toward the day-to-day business of Willamette Street.
Perhaps it was the castle that charmed me in 1963 as much as the student who rented a second floor room. The next year I married him and we set off to seek castles of our own. But the house on the hill maintained a proud presence in courtship stories we’ve replayed for years.
A few weeks ago I returned to the castle and rang the front door bell. Terri Coleman invited me in for look at downstairs spaces that had been off limits to student renters in the 1960s. Today, rooms on all floors of the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House are open to visitors as a museum of Victorian life in Eugene. In December, it dons the glitter and glitz of a Victorian Christmas--a holiday castle decked in swags and wreathes and a dozen glittering trees.
It’s the busiest season of the year for volunteers like Coleman who trim 12 trees with vintage ornaments, unpack Nutcracker figures to spread through every room, and serve guests at festive holiday teas in the parlor. Ten volunteers worked seven hours on the weekend before my visit, spreading visions of holidays past through three floors. An army of volunteers maintains the historic
home and gardens and serve as guides for tours and
From student rooms to City Museum
The structure, now owned by the City of Eugene, is a proud part of Eugene’s history, and also part of mine. In 1963, an outside staircase provided access to upstairs rooms where my husband, Dean, was one of four college boys who rented bedrooms, a small kitchen and a bath.
A staircase between first and second floors was walled off in those years, granting privacy to first-floor residents. On weekends, college friends streamed up that outside staircase for pre-dance parties while downstairs, Dr. Eva Johnson resided in contentment, thanks to age-related hearing loss.
Much has changed in the house in the years since 1975 when Dr. Johnson deeded it to Lane County Historical Society. The city of Eugene took ownership in the 1990s and began revitalizing Eugene’s castle on the hill.
“I love the history of the house,” says Coleman, who herself has a history of 15 years as a volunteer at the museum. “I love that it’s a Victorian house. The fanciness of that era, the elegance—they did things in an elaborate way and the house reflects that. We have lost many historical buildings in Eugene so it’s important to me that this one stays as a reliable history.”
A retired software technician at Kernutt Stokes accounting firm in Eugene, Coleman has immersed herself in history both at the SMJ House and as proprietor of the Antique Peddlers collective in Springfield.
“It’s my retirement love,” she says. “To me, the thought of retirement and doing nothing is pretty scary. I’m not ready to stop.”
Since 1984 when the house was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, focus has been on restoring the early years of life at the home constructed in 1888 by the Shelton family and described as Late Victorian Queen Anne Revival architecture.
Furnishings reflect the years between 1888 and 1949, the period in which original owners and their descendants, the McMurpheys, resided in the house. The wall that separated upstairs renters from residents in later years has now been removed. Bannisters damaged by construction of the temporary barrier have been restored.
Today, guests flow through the castle’s front door for teas and tours that feature Victorian era customs and decor. Summer workshops restore the romance of the period for students who don frills and practice proper manners.
Holiday teas Revive Eugene's Victorian Past
“We have a mission to preserve the heritage of the SMJ House for future generations by hosting events that highlight the history and people of Eugene,” says volunteer Hahn Neimand.
Neimand felt the pull of the SMJ House even before it became a public museum. A few years prior to her 1995 retirement from 30 years as an elementary teacher in local schools, Neimand attended an educators’ workshop on urban architecture at Portland’s historic Pittock Mansion
The program inspired Neimand and a colleague to develop a walking tour of historic homes in Eugene’s Skinner Butte neighborhood for elementary school students. That involvement led her to a position on the committee that orchestrated the SMJ house transition from county to city ownership and to years of leadership on the SMJ house board.
“You have to be dedicated to do this kind of thing,” she says. “I never dreamt that I would do this, but the last two years of teaching I was president of the teachers’ union so I learned lots of management skills. That prepared me for this.”
What has kept her involved as a volunteer and board member at the house long after retirement from teaching is the history and educational opportunities the facility offers.
“Dr. Johnson wanted to keep it open so people didn’t forget the history of Eugene,” she says. “We use it as an educational facility to remind people of the past, and in addition to that, it’s a beautiful place. It’s just part of my life. It’s never been boring.”
Victorian teas and holiday tours serve that educational goal, and December brings a flurry of activity for volunteers who serve as decorators, docents, and tea pourers at the special events.
But Coleman is more likely to be found in the kitchen, hand-washing china teacups, than at the door to welcome guests. It’s a job that’s hard to sell, she says, but she likes the contact with history in cups once lifted by our forebears. Plus, plumbing that dates to 1888 rules out a modern dishwasher.
This season’s teas conclude with a final event today, but a new year brings new opportunities. The museum website, SMJHouse.org, provides an event schedule and a sign-up for email notices
As for me, it’s not teas or Christmas trees that brought history to life as Coleman and Neimand guided me through the house this month. Just one room’s historic to me. It’s the front room upstairs with a view across the train tracks and south down Willamette Street. The room of the college boy who now makes his home with me.
Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact at email@example.com.