Needed: A grand scale boiler

Clouds Hill Victorian Museum in midst of fundraising drive

Posted 8/3/23

Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum offers visitors “a portal to the past,” but its heating system could use a portal to the 21st century.

The museum, an estate built between 1872 and …

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Needed: A grand scale boiler

Clouds Hill Victorian Museum in midst of fundraising drive


Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum offers visitors “a portal to the past,” but its heating system could use a portal to the 21st century.

The museum, an estate built between 1872 and 1877 as a wedding present for Elizabeth Ives Slater, has remained in the ownership of her female heirs ever since. Four generations later, the house is remarkably well-preserved, almost exactly as it was when built. Even with constant maintenance and exemptions from the fire code, however, totally eschewing modern innovations is infeasible. In the case of the heating system, attempts at gradually modernizing have led to a Frankenstein of a boiler lurking in the basement.

The current heating system relies on several parts: a five-section steam boiler from 1948, a 150-year-old pipe that supplies air from underground—warm in the winter, cool in the summer—and an equally old set of radiators around the house. The boiler room is closed by a blast door for safety, and gets as hot as 120° Fahrenheit when the boiler is operating. After 75 years with this system, the museum is seeking a replacement. Vice President and Director of Operations, Wayne Cabral says the old boiler “just couldn’t handle” the unique setup anymore; the five boiler sections had begun to separate, and once bolts started snapping, he knew it was a goner.

It took three engineers’ combined brainpower to devise the best way to replace the boiler. A plan was drawn up, and the museum is currently seeking donations to cover the $55,000 cost.

“A house is always a house, even when it is a museum, and they require constant maintenance,” reads an email newsletter to Clouds Hill members on July 1. “The difference here is the age and size of the house makes the cost of maintenance a bit higher.”

According to Anne Holst, the museum president and Elizabeth Ives Slater’s great-granddaughter, Clouds Hill is unique: the “most complete Victorian house in America.” Originally christened Cedar Hill, the estate opened as a museum in 2000 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Practically nothing has been changed in the home that was not absolutely necessary. Ask Cabral if a certain piece is original—curtains, artwork, books in the library, even the grand piano that stands in the living room—and the answer is probably yes. Cabral says there are thousands of artifacts in the house. They still haven’t counted them all.

There’s an impressive level of preservation.

Clouds Hill, Cabral says, was a “clutter home.” Rather than throwing things away, the Slater descendants held on to everything from expensive political gifts to furniture. Every record pertaining to the construction of the house was kept, so that even now, a list of every person involved can be found on the museum website. It wasn’t until Holst inherited the home that she realized it had real historical value and sought to preserve its contents.

But Clouds Hill’s historical importance doesn’t come from age alone. Elizabeth Ives Slater’s great-uncle was Samuel Slater, the “Father of the Industrial Revolution.” Family on her husband’s side, meanwhile, were traders who visited countries around the world, building a vast collection of multicultural art and artifacts. The nursery alone holds everything from Middle Eastern fabrics to a Polynesian shark-tooth spear and an Indian chess set, and an entire room is done in the Egyptian Revival style, reflecting the American fascination with Ancient Egypt during the period.

The museum’s book collection includes several first-edition Jules Verne novels. Connections to Roger Williams and Brown University, meanwhile, cement the estate’s two-way influence not just on foreign shores, but in Rhode Island itself as well.

“In 1877, this was the grandest house in all of Rhode Island,” says Cabral. According to the original financial records, items in the house were worth $136,284.53 when it was built. Today, he estimates the collection is worth between $12 million and $18 million.

Built to last

Although it requires continual maintenance, Clouds Hill was dealt a better hand than many other historical homes in Rhode Island. Holst says the state has “everything from early colonial… into the art-deco period” when it comes to architecture, but few Victorian estates are left. The house is “lucky to have very little wood,” says Cabral, with an exterior made of granite sourced from West Greenwich. What wood there is, such as the original wood floors, is old-growth wood—wood that had been growing undisturbed for centuries before it was cut for the house—making it considerably more durable and fireproof than most modern wood, cut from younger trees. Cabral claims that as recently as the 1990s, a contractor found that the wood at Clouds Hill was never more than half an inch out of plumb. There’s always some part of the house that needs work, however, and Cabral says the estate would fall into disrepair without the donors and volunteers that help keep it running.

The museum, which is classified as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, is almost entirely staffed by volunteers. Many come from a special-needs transition program, helping at the museum to learn practical skills that ease their transition into the workforce. The museum gives back further by opening its Center for the Outdoors—which contains animal and plant specimens, scientific literature, and Rhode Island historical artifacts—for use by school programs, as well as a partnership with the Warwick Center for the Arts. The Center for the Outdoors also hosts other nature-related events, like an upcoming September 30 workshop with Pollinator Pathway, an organization that helps create habitable environments for pollinators like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. “We feel that it is tremendously important to address the loss of pollinators and habitat,” Holst says.

“Clouds Hill’s vision,” according to the museum website, “is high quality education of our visitors in history, arts, and natural environment, so that we may enrich the lives of those in our community and inspire future generations.” Even without employee salaries, however, operating the museum is expensive and is mostly funded by donations. “No museum can run on visitors… you can’t,” says Holst.

Clouds Hill is one of the most well-kept Victorian estates in the country, and Holst intends to keep it that way. The fundraising effort for the new boiler is part of a larger $1.5 million capital campaign, with an eventual goal of returning the roof to its original design using waterproof cedar to last 70 years. Donations are tax deductible and can be made on the museum website: a small way to help preserve Rhode Island history. In the meantime, that history can be experienced both at Clouds Hill itself and in Newport at the Redwood Library’s Expanding Horizons: Highlights from the Clouds Hill House Museum exhibition.

Clouds Hill, renovation, fundraising