Details matter at Downton Abbey, where Carson the butler aligns salad plates on the dinner table against a silver ruler. The same is true in New Jersey at the former Kean family estate on the campus of Kean University in Union.
From the splendor of a governor’s front parlor to the modest attic rooms that housed the servants, Liberty Hall is on display to the public for a Downton Abbey-inspired exhibit. “Ring for Service: The Role of Servants in a Country House,” open through November 2013, shows, for the first time, all four floors of the former Kean family estate.
Fans of the popular British television series will see familiar sights at Liberty Hall, says William Schroh Jr., director of museum operations. The house was built on the site in 1772 for William Livingston, first governor of New Jersey; over the years, the home has been expanded into today’s 50-room Victorian mansion that has housed the Kean political dynasty—ancestors of former governor Tom Kean and state Senator Tom Kean Jr. (neither of whom lived in the home).
“We felt that the real stars of the show Downton Abbey are the servants,” says Schroh, noting the exhibit’s focus on the downstairs, rather than the upstairs residents of Liberty Hall. Each period-decorated room has uniformed mannequins posed as though serving tea or inviting guests to leave a calling card on a silver tray.
“In 1900, the needs of the Kean family who lived at Liberty Hall were met by the simple ringing of the servant’s bell,” Schroh says. In one bedroom, a black-clad mannequin representing a lady’s maid stands next to a corset. In another, a valet appears to lay a gentleman’s evening wear on a four-poster bed.
The Kean family kept copious records on the household staff. “We went through ledgers and notebooks,” Schroh says. “The results astonished us. We know who worked here, for how long, and how much the servants were paid.” Some of the records are on display in the kitchen.
As in Downton Abbey, the butler was in charge. “The butler was the first person a visitor would see and the last to see guests out,” Schroh says. Though it may seem hard to believe, dinner plates were indeed positioned on the table with a straight edge. “We still have the ruler,” says Schroh.
Liberty Hall (kean.edu/libertyhall) is located at 1003 Morris Avenue, Union. Tours run 10 am to 4 pm, Monday to Saturday, departing on the hour (the last tour departs at 3 pm).
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