April 27, 2016

The Living Kitchens at Cliveden

In spring 2010 a longtime caretaker vacated Cliveden’s Kitchen Dependency, giving staff a chance to examine the interior of the building—especially evidence of an 18th-century cooking hearth. With a generous grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Cliveden—a National Trust historic site—is now able to undertake a comprehensive master plan for preserving and interpreting its kitchen spaces. The Living Kitchens project will re-orient how people understand Cliveden’s history by shifting focus to the service spaces and encouraging discussion of their occupation and use. The project is the next step in the ongoing expansion of Cliveden’s interpretation.

Cliveden, viewed from the back-of-house | Credit: Garth Herrick

Interpreting the Kitchen Dependency

The 1767 Kitchen Dependency was originally a detached service building that was later connected to the Main House dining room by a covered colonnade passage. Used as both the household’s main cooking area and a residence for those enslaved and in service, this building was the center of back-of-house life at Cliveden throughout the more than two centuries during which the site was occupied. When a large addition was added to the rear of the Main House in 1868, the colonnade was enclosed, constructing an additional interior back-of-house space. The colonnade was renovated with a mid-century modern prefabricated kitchen in 1959, which is extant today. By simultaneously examining the two kitchens, the project is exploring how the past informs the present.

The opportunity to consider the Kitchen Dependency came amid groundbreaking interpretive changes at the site. Cliveden held a series of public meetings in 2010 to share research about the Chew family’s plantations in Maryland and Delaware and the large numbers of enslaved laborers who worked there. Cliveden’s staff and board went on to invite the Germantown community to take part in re-interpreting the site to include the difficult and uncomfortable aspects of American history.

1959 Kitchen at Cliveden | Credit: Libbie Hawes

Using public feedback, Cliveden developed a more inclusive interpretation that juxtaposed the lives of those enslaved and in service with those of the elite of Chew family that they supported. A new core exhibit—Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?—opened in 2012, and the continuing education of the Cliveden guide corps rejuvenated the traditional tour program.

The award-winning speaker series, “Cliveden Conversations,” continued the public discussion of race, place, and memory. A revision of Cliveden’s National Historic Landmark nomination expanded the significance of the site in the public record, and Liberty to Go to See—a dramatic event that takes place onsite—continues to extend the reach of the interpretation to new audiences.

Kitchen Dependency partition demo day, December 2015 | Credit: Libbie Hawes

During the implementation of these programs, the potential of Cliveden’s kitchens as interpretive spaces that locate the narratives of the enslaved and in service became increasingly apparent. In 2011, as a pilot project of the expanded interpretation, the kitchens were opened to visitors in an unrestored state. Though interpretation of the dynamics of the Cliveden household operations is limited so far, the positive response from our audience reinforces the importance of the kitchens project. Visitors consistently react to the contrast of the 1959 kitchen set in an 18th-century house with audible surprise. Exploring the architectural evidence in the Kitchen Dependency brings an experience of discovery and participation to the tour.

Understanding the Significance of Kitchens

The Living Kitchens project is pursuing Cliveden’s interpretive goal of blending heritage, memory, and scholarship in provocative ways. The project seeks to develop content and approaches around the kitchen, a household place that filters common experience through diverse perspectives. The process will compare and contrast the design of the spaces, exploring the ways they were peopled and used, as well as how and why the Cliveden kitchens changed over time. Phases of the project include research, consultations with experts, opportunities for public input and programs to demonstrate findings.

The project is undertaking archival research and architectural archaeology to understand the history of the kitchens and those who lived and worked in them. As Cliveden opens for the 2016 season, this research is in full swing and the results are already being shared with visitors. The document only an inconsistent record of physical changes and furnishing of the kitchens. However, a close look at early invoices from Germantown carpenters Jacob and George Knor reveals their continued work at the property, making improvements and providing furnishings, including a dish drainer, a dough trough, and a bottle rack for the kitchen as well as benches for the milk house. More research is needed to learn about the people who worked in the kitchens, as records are few.

Visitors to Cliveden this season will also see firsthand the architectural excavations that demonstrate the construction and physical changes to the kitchens. The project team has uncovered details about the cooking hearth in the Kitchen Dependency and how it was changed over time to accommodate new cooking technologies. The team is also coming to understand kitchens as a network of spaces, including the work yard behind the buildings, additional outbuildings, and spaces in the cellars as part of the story of the kitchens. While this research is taking place, Cliveden has held a public program series called “Kitchen Conversations” to share ongoing findings along with those of scholars working on allied projects. As part of the project, Cliveden staff have also reached out to the Germantown community to collect memories from the kitchen spaces of their past. In meetings at churches and senior centers, we discussed ice deliveries, laundry practices, and favorite recipes as well as who has done the cooking in homes over the last 75 years. Cliveden asked the community to participate by loaning an object, accompanied by a recipe and a memory, for an exhibition in the Cliveden Carriage House. Audience response to the programs suggests that learning about this project by connecting it to their own kitchens has been meaningful for the community.

Hearth wall with infills in the 1767 Kitchen Dependency at Cliveden | Credit: Libbie Hawes

The Living Kitchens project is delving into provocative material by locating household operations in kitchens—places that expose the intersection of different lifestyles and classes over time. Cliveden will continue to use the authentic place and narrative that are central to this project to explore relationships between the wealthy and those enslaved and in service. By including both experts and a public audience in the inquiry, Cliveden aims to creatively engage stakeholders in the preservation and interpretation of the site.

Libbie Hawes is the preservation director at Cliveden.

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By: Libbie Hawes

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