Pixie-ish Miss Derby is back in the drawing room of the Manor House at Wildwood Preserve Metropark after a 45-year absence.
Clad in a bouffant bonnet and red slippers, she sits serene on a Chippendale sofa, a pooch in her lap.
“We’re thrilled. It’s an original piece. It’s nice to put the house back together,” said Deanne Douglas, chairman of the Manor House interior restoration committee.
Good timing and luck contributed to the discovery of the two-centuries-old oil painting that was rehung in the original nail holes above the marble fireplace just before Thanksgiving.
Little Miss Derby will oversee concerts, teas, and weddings held in the freshly renovated 24-foot-by-40-foot drawing room. Her identity may never be known but the large, unsigned canvas is believed to have been painted by John Raphael Smith (1752-1812) in the late 1700s. Born in Derby 110 miles north of London, Smith painted plenty of portraits but was respected even more for his superb engravings (of which the Toledo Museum of Art has 10).
The Manor House, originally dubbed Stranleigh, is enjoying a partial facelift. In addition to the drawing room, the master bedroom suite has been spruced up. And new slate roof covering 13,000 square feet was completed last month. Also, 97 rope-and-pulley windows were refurbished and new glass was installed, along with plumbing and electrical upgrades. The $828,000 expense was paid for from the Metroparks’ capital improvements budget, along with a donation from the Stranahan Foundation.
‘Far and wide’
Fit for a captain of industry, the home was constructed between 1936-1938 for the family of Robert Stranahan, co-founder of the Champion Spark Plug Co. Its 50 rooms (16 bedrooms, 17 bathrooms, 16 fireplaces, a shooting gallery in the lower level, and rooms for staff) were emptied after Robert’s wife, Page Stranahan, died in 1968.
“The furniture’s scattered far and wide,” said Douglas. “A lot of the pieces were sold in the Toledo area.”
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Family members claimed some things, other items were sold in 1969, and the rest, including Miss Derby and two antique crystal chandeliers, were stored until 1984 when they were sold at auction.
“There were a lot of good antiques,” said John Whalen, who handled the 1984 sale. There was golf equipment, stemware, linens, and a slant-front desk from the early 1800s that brought thousands of dollars, said Whalen, who does not have sale records.
The chandeliers were refurbished and purchased for the Manor House in 1985.
Miss Derby was bought at the 1984 auction by Joe Swolsky, a local developer, who hung it prominently in three of his homes. Under his watch, Miss Derby’s dog was stabbed when his son, Oskar (then 4), thrust a toy sword in the painting.
“I told him it was his inheritance,” said Swolsky, who had it repaired at the Toledo museum.
When Swolsky moved to Perrysburg, the English lassie and her dog weren’t a good fit with the contemporary decor.
“I’m more of a modern art kind of person,” he said, so he had Whalen store it.
Return to the past
In 1975 when the Manor House and the estate’s nearly 500 acres were acquired by the Metroparks, it was empty, so volunteers filled it with donations and purchases. They placed items of particular styles — oriental, colonial, federal, and empire — in different rooms, Douglas said.
Decades later, the interior restoration committee decided to restore the place to its origins, as great houses open to the public often are.
Behind-the-Scenes tours of the entire Manor House, including areas once inhabited by the Stranahan’s staff and now used as Metroparks offices, cost $9 and require advance registration at metroparkstoledo.com or 419 407-9710. Tours will be 6 to 9 p.m. Jan. 9 and Jan. 12, Feb. 6 and 9, March 6 and 9. Also, from 9 a.m. to noon on Jan. 11, Feb. 8, and March 8.
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“Our committee is trying to turn the rooms back to the way they were when the family lived in the house,” Douglas said. Pictures of many rooms exist, but she’s hunting for more.
She contacted Whalen hoping to get history on the chandeliers.
“A few months later he called and said he had some items come back that had been sold at the 1984 auction,” she said. “And he mentioned ‘I have this painting I’m storing for a client.’ ”
Douglas saw the painting, checked it against photos of the room taken during the Stranahan era, and verified it was the same.
Whalen spoke with Swolsky, who agreed to sell it to the Manor House Volunteers for $4,500, about what he paid for it.
“It was thrilling,” said Ed Hill, advisor to the restoration committee and a curatorial assistant at the Toledo Museum of Art. “When you’re restoring a place, if you find a piece that was there, you get it.”
The Stranahans appointed their home with attractive, comfortable furnishings, he said. “And they had some great things, but it wasn’t a museum and it wasn’t pretentious.”
Miss Derby did not require cleaning or restoration, he said. According to a 1916 article in the New York Times, when the painting sold for $5,000, the child was thought to have been the artist’s daughter.
Douglas said the committee continues searching for other items original to the home, as well as photos and first-hand information. A four-poster mahogany bed purchased at the 1969 sale was given back to the Manor House in 2011 and is now in the master bedroom. And Whalen donated books and book ends that were returned to him from the 1984 sale.
“It’s part treasure hunt, part puzzle,” she said.
The committee can be reached at email@example.com.
Contact Tahree Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org and 419-724-6075.