The Italianate house known as Fountain Elms stands today as a reminder of the imposing residences which once lined both sides of Genesee Street in Utica, NY. Helen Munson Williams (1824-94) and James Watson Williams (1810-73) built this house in 1850 working with Albany, NY, architect William Woollett and they raised their daughters Rachel (1850-1915) and Maria (1853-1935) here.
James and Helen Williams relied on New York businesses in Utica, Troy, and Albany for utilitarian items for Fountain Elms, but they turned to the finest New York City cabinetmakers to furnish the public spaces in their home in the mid 19th-century. The original Charles Baudouine parlor suite, for example, is today in the Museum’s decorative arts collection as are many of the paintings that graced the walls of Fountain Elms.
In 1876, shortly after James’s death, Helen and her daughters began a household project that lasted for several years. It included converting some of the rooms for different uses; enlarging Fountain Elms with a major, three-story addition on the west side; and purchasing the requisite furniture and textiles to complete the refurbishment. Again, the finest cabinetmakers and interior decorating firms were enlisted – Herter Brothers, Marcotte, and Pottier and Stymus.
After their marriage in 1894, Rachel Munson Williams Proctor and her husband Frederick Proctor (1856-1929) lived in Fountain Elms and acquired works of art and furniture to update the interior of the house along with numerous physical changes. Following Maria’s death in 1935, and the opening of the Institute in 1936, Fountain Elms served for many years as the Museum’s galleries with assorted interior alterations creating meeting rooms and exhibition spaces. With the construction of the Philip Johnson-designed Museum of Art building in 1960, it was decided to return Fountain Elms to the period of the 1850s. This was one of the earliest creations of a Victorian-era period rooms in a museum in the United States and the project received a great deal of national attention. The work made no attempt to recreate the original interiors of the Williams home. Many of the family furnishings from the 1850s had been disposed of – either as a result of changing styles during the house’s years of occupation, or during its decades as an art museum – so high-style antiques were purchased to fill the interior. The four downstairs rooms were returned to their original functions and, with the reproduction wall coverings, draperies, and carpets, the rooms now present the appearance of a wealthy home of the mid-19th century.
Today, as part of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute’s Museum of Art, Fountain Elms is home to the museum’s decorative arts collection which is comprised, in part, by objects collected by the Williams and Proctors during their lifetimes such as American and European paintings, Asian ceramics, European watches, thimbles, playing cards, souvenir spoons, canes, fans, and autographs. The period room settings and changing exhibitions in Fountain Elms provide the stylistic, historical, and social contexts for the entire decorative arts collection. The second floor features open study storage and changing exhibition galleries.