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Grier-Musser: A Place for the Hearts

February 13, 1988|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

The jade-green mansion on Bonnie Brae Street is an isolated gemstone in an inner-city neighborhood that has lost its luster. This is the Grier-Musser Museum, which was once a residence, built in 1898 in the Queen Anne style of Victorian architecture.

Enter the house and walk back in time to the turn of the century. The family that once lived here is giving a St. Valentine's Day party this evening, and valentines are everywhere--the mantle over the fireplace, the walls of each room, and on the green velvet chairs in the parlor.

In the dining room, there are heart-shaped decorations at place settings of blue and white willowware and pressed glass goblets that will be filled with California wine. The printed cards differ from the 900 million or so valentines that have been mailed across the country during the past few days.

Mementos of the Past

They are mementos of yesteryear when card manufacturers created elaborate lacy designs and hearts that would pop out when opened. They were ornately embossed and often padded with satin (to which a dash of perfume might be added). There were also simpler ones for youngsters. In a schoolroom, a bold lad might place one on the desk of the little red-haired girl who sat in front of him. The message was brief and as direct as the printed arrow that pierced two hearts:

You'll be my Valentine,

I'll be your beau--

For that will make sweethearts

don't you know?

The recipient of this ardent plea might turn, rewarding the youthful swain with a smile, whereupon his face would turn the color of a rosy apple.

The house was acquired in 1984 by Dr. Anna Krieger, a retired physician and her daughters, Susan and Nancy, who established it as a museum in honor of Dr. Krieger's mother, Anna Grier Musser. Throughout the house are many of her heirlooms, including watercolor paintings, Haviland china and clothing from the 19th Century. The family's collection of antiques spans three generations, and countless items have been added during the period the house was being restored.

The rooms contain antique furnishings and hundreds of early manufactured items; dishware, toys and personal effects. In one that a little girl might have occupied, a group of dolls is arrayed on a handmade quilt covering a cast-iron bed. Some of the dolls' heads are china. These were produced in Germany as early as the 1750s and were popular during the mid-19th Century. They were called "china heads" because of the shiny, glazed, porcelain finish. Their popularity declined during the 1880s when the matte finish bisque dolls, which were more lifelike, came on the market.

Stained-Glass Windows

There are other attractions that visitors will find of interest; colorful Victorian stained-glass windows, and the wood-burning cooking stove in the kitchen. A parlor cabinet is filled with china and glassware created by artisans during the mid-19th Century. Electricity was installed in 1879, but the original owner may have mistrusted the new system of illumination--the hanging glass chandeliers are fitted with light bulbs, but the gas lamps in the house were retained.

Today, however, the central theme is valentines, and young visitors invariably ask what their meaning is. The answer is a mixture of fact and fable that has been designated on the year's calendar as being devoted to love and romance. It began long ago. One of the most plausible accounts is that the ancient Roman festival in honor of Juno and Pan could have been the beginning.

The feast day was called Lupercalia, and it was on Feb. 14. It was the custom for each boy to draw at random the name of a girl as a means of selecting a partner for the festival. Enter Valentine or Valentines. There may have been two, one a priest, another a bishop. One or the other (possibly both) was beheaded around AD 269 on the eve of Lupercalia at the order of Claudius the Goth, a persecutor of Christians. His or their beheading took place either on the Flaminian Way near Rome, or Terni in Italy. Some historians have asserted that there were even six men named Valentine. Regardless, St. Valentine is considered the patron saint of lovers.

Gift-Giving Custom

During medieval times in Europe, there was a popular belief that birds mated on that date. In 16th-Century England, it became a custom to give gifts on that date. If the sender had any poetic and artistic talent, he or she would write a verse and decorate the paper with hearts and flowers. The color of the latter conveyed a message; a red rose denoted true love, a yellow one suggested that the other party was cheating, and sketching a marigold was a subtle way of declaring "I'm jealous."

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