Country Decor Inspiration: The Molly Brown House
For many of us, a love of history and respect for the past is reflected in our homes through the use of historic accents and other country decor elements. We’ve enjoyed exploring notable historic figures and homes with you. So far, our series has looked at one home that inspired a classic American painting, and another home where an American icon wrote his finest work.
Today we’re going to focus on Denver’s Molly Brown House, named for the philanthropist, activist, socialite and Titanic survivor Margaret Brown. To spend any time studying the house or its namesake is to see a story of success and endurance.
Born Margaret Tobin in Hannibal Missouri in 1867, Brown grew up in a working class Irish-American family. Her parents valued education, and Margaret went to school until age 13 before going to work in a factory.
A few years later, she and her brother moved to Leadville, a Colorado mining community, where she met J.J. Brown, a local mining engineer. They married in 1886. A few years later, J.J. – who had developed a method that allowed miners to dig deeper than before — discovered gold in the mine where he was working.
The mine owners rewarded the Browns with shares in their company, and Margaret, J.J. and their two children were suddenly very, very rich. The Browns moved to Denver, buying their home on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1894.
Champion of the Working Class
The Browns became a big part of Denver society, but Margaret was also active in advocating for the types of social reforms championed by the local Progressive movement such as installing baths in the city’s courthouse, and pushing for more public parks.
She also worked with Ben Lindsey, a reformer and judge who pioneered the country’s first juvenile court system. In 1901, Brown ran for state senate. As her museum’s website put it:
“This action defied the common maxim, touted by her own husband, which stated that a woman’s name should appear in the newspaper only three times: at her birth, upon her marriage and at her death.”
While Brown withdrew from the race before election day, she had broken new ground and started her way down a larger political path that she would explore for the rest of her life.
In addition to her philanthropic work, Brown loved to travel with her husband. They visited Ireland, Russia, India and Japan. J.J. thought about retiring to Ireland. Margaret wrote articles about India’s caste system for Denver newspapers.
On the Titanic
In 1909, the Browns quietly separated. Margaret kept on traveling. It was on one those voyages in 1912 that she booked passage on the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ocean liner. This is where her legend was born.
Her character figures into virtually every movie made about the Titanic, including the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster, which shows Brown (played by Kathy Bates) trying to get other passengers to search for survivors.
In real life, Brown is credited with comforting her fellow survivors (it helped that she was multi-lingual) and raising money to help the poorer women who had been traveling on the lower levels of the ship. She became president of the Titanic Survivors Club and helped raise money for a memorial in Washington.
Contrary to her legend, she never called herself “unsinkable.” That was apparently the invention of a gossip columnist in Denver, helped along by the musical – and later movie – The Unsinkable Molly Brown. No one in real life ever called her “Molly.” She was “Maggie: to her friends.
But her status as a Titanic survivor gave her a national platform to advocate for the causes that she held dear: the rights of miners, the rights of women, and the juvenile court system. She spent her final years in New York and Paris, pursuing an acting career, and died in her sleep in 1932.
Saving the Molly Brown House
After her death, her house was sold, and new owners changed the home dramatically, dividing it into 12 different spaces to rent to boarders. It would seem like a sad ending to a grand home, but The Molly Brown house has remained as unsinkable as its namesake.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, as Denver began bulldozing many classic buildings in the name of urban renewal, owner Art Leisenring worked with other concerned citizens to save the home from demolition. The group, known as Historic Denver, used paint analysis and historic research to restore the home to its original glory. Today it’s a museum, which sees about 45,000 visitors a year.
We’re sure you’ll come away with something that — to paraphrase the on-screen Margaret Brown – shines like a new penny.