Time Machine

Historic Arkansas Museum - Sunday, February 01, 2015

What is it like to step back in time?

There is a house in Arkansas that served as a portal to the past for Little Rock appraiser Jennifer Carman. "I can only liken it to reading a truly engrossing book."

Learn about Carmen's experience sorting through the memories at the historic Drennen-Scott House in Van Buren.

The Drennen Project
by Jennifer Carman

In the course of my work I often examine family heirlooms, usually a single piece of furniture, or a quilt or painting that has been passed down from one generation to the next. However, it is truly remarkable when the “heirloom” is an entire home, and every single one of its contents. I realized early on that I was about to embark upon a once-in-a-lifetime experience, both professionally and personally. I was one of the last people to have the unique opportunity to see the contents of the Drennen estate truly in situ. No future re-installation could ever authentically duplicate the smell of the dust or the sense of mystery, as you never knew what was within the next box or behind the next cupboard door. It seems nearly impossible to try to share the essence of the experience with others. I can only liken it to reading a truly engrossing book. If the Drennen family’s estate was a book, it would be one of those page turners, where the plot thickens, twists and turns, and where a lively cast of characters emerge to carry you through the entire realm of human emotions. It would undoubtedly be an international bestseller, and even Harry Potter wouldn’t stand a chance. The estate contents and personal correspondence take one on a journey through more than fifteen decades. The items in the collection were witness to the financial, romantic and spiritual ups and downs of an Arkansas family through the generations.

From the outside, the house seems quite small, smaller than you might expect. However, once inside it expands, and it is as if the outside world melts away, and you have been transported back in time. I know it is the closest I will ever come to the fantastical experience of time travel. In some moments it seemed as though John Drennen himself may have just stepped out of the room for a moment. The house had the intermingled smell of old books, walnut furniture and the sweet smell of pine. It was the smell that most people call “musty”, but to any fine and decorative arts lover, it is the intoxicating aroma of age.

Above, the main parlor in the 1930s--notice the paintings
Below, the main parlor in 2005
The modern-day descendants of John Drennen had created many contemporary living spaces as part of an addition at the rear of the house, and whenever I would glance into one of those rooms, It was startling, to be reminded of the present by the sound or sight of a television or microwave. It reminded me of the movie Fried Green Tomatoeswhere the scenes from the present are a temporary shock to the system after being lost in the reverie of the past.

In addition to being like a great book, it was also like a treasure hunt. Cupboards and drawers were opening, and pieces of the past were coming out of their long hiding. Throughout the process I became familiar with the faces of the Drennen and Scott families from spending a lot of time with their painted portraits. I examined the objects of the main parlor and hallway under the watchful eyes of nearly ten Drennen descendants. The cast of characters felt increasingly intimate as I came to easily recognize their images and even their personal tastes in the decorative art objects throughout the home. The greatest moment for me came when I found a tiny daguerreotype of John Drennen. I had been told many times by the current family members that there were no known photographs of him. I was absolutely elated when I picked up what I thought was a brass button from the bottom of a cardboard box, and turned it over in my palm to see John Drennen himself staring back at me!

The worst moment? Reading an 1855 letter from a hotel employee to John Drennen's wife, informing her that John had died. It explained that he had contracted yellow fever, and that the hotel owner, upon finding out that Drennen was a Mason, asked all of the other guests to leave his hotel, calling in the finest doctor he knew of to try to save her husband's life. However, it was to no avail. After personally reading 150 years of the family's personal correspondence, I could not help but feel a sense of loss as I read the words.

Perhaps the most striking aspect for me is that this was not the remarkable tale of one man and his estate, but rather of one family through the ages. By the end of the job, I had to remind myself that 90% of the “characters” and John Drennen never even knew each other. You see, in the house it was almost as though they all lived on and existed simultaneously. There were letters home from Civil War Soldiers, fine silver received as wedding gifts, feathers taken from a flapper's head dress, and 20th-century photographs of two sisters who bred Great Danes. The contents of this home were so much more than just a splendid collection of silver, paintings, furniture, glass, textiles, documents and photographs. The collection as a whole, from the finest silver to each tattered letter, sheds insight into this Arkansas family’s sense of style and adventure, their activities, their taste in literature, their apparent love of family dining and entertaining, and their love of and service to this country. Indeed, it was both an honor and privilege to have been selected to take part.

Jennifer Carman has a Master of Art in Art History from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and is a Graduate Connoisseur of Christie's Auction House in London. Her company, J. CARMAN, inc. specializes in the brokerage and valuation of fine and decorative American and European Art. Read more about the Drennen story in Collections, the museum's newsletter. To be on our newsletter mailing list, become a member of the museum.