A century-old Victorian home perched high above the Tennessee River in Chattanooga’s vibrant Bluff View Art District houses one of the world’s finest antique glass and ceramics collections. The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts is home to the lifetime collection of Anna Safley Houston, an eccentric woman of modest financial means. Nicknamed Antique Annie, although few people called her that to her face, she acquired a world class collection through her uncanny ability to select the finest, and her self sacrifice to keep her collection intact. The story of Antique Annie is as fascinating as the collection itself.
Born in Alabama in 1876, young Anna Safley was intrigued with colored bits of glass and glued them on bottles to make vases. In the early 1900s she opened a millinery store in Chattanooga and continued collecting glass throughout her retail career. Finally she acquired enough inventory to open an antique shop there in the 1920s, but she lost it during the Great Depression. She was married numerous times; estimates range from five to ten husbands. None of these men was affluent enough to support her lifestyle and she had to continue working to acquire her possessions. All of her marriages ended in divorce. She consistently used the last name of Houston, reportedly her favorite husband.
When extreme financial hardships occurred in her later life, Annie lived in a barn rather than sell some of her possessions to buy a home. During her last years she slept on a cot with only her dog for a companion. More than 15,000 glass water pitchers hung from her barn’s ceiling, and every other imaginable place. When there was a fire in the barn in the late 1940s, those valuable pitchers were used – bucket brigade-fashion – to pour water on the flames, and most of her possessions were saved. In 1951 Annie Houston died of what her death certificate says was “obstructve jaundice,” a disease of the liver. She she never sold a single one of her thousands of antiques to pay for lifesaving food or medical treatment.
Prior to her death, the childless collector made legal arrangements to have her 50+ collections in trust to the people of Chattanooga. They are now on display for the enjoyment of antique lovers in the not-for-profit Houston Museum, which is best known for 18th, 19th, and early 20th century antique art glass and American pressed glass. The rare glass collections include amberina, plated amberina, Pomona, peachblow, Burmese, cameo, Steuben, Tiffany, cranberry, satin, Quezal, Durand, sandwich and cut glass as well as more than 600 patterns of Early American pressed glass. There is also a variety of lustre and a large collection of the rarest examples of Staffordshire, Mettlach steins, Rockingham-Bennington pottery, bottles and flasks, original Toby jugs, Meissen, and Rose Canton pieces, mostly in the Rose Medallion and Rose Mandarin patterns.
In addition to glass, the museum exhibits fine examples of early southern and other American furniture, including sugar chests, cabinets, sideboards, desks and tables. Fairy Lamps include two Samuel Clarke fairy pyramids and a larger Clarke fairy lamp. Music boxes, coverlets, pewter, silver and early prints are also on display. Only a small portion Annie’s items can be exhibited at one time, so periodic changes in displays rotate the collection.
The Houston Museum Shop has an assortment of gifts relating to the antiques on display. Among the many books for sale is Always Paddle Your Own Canoe, The Life, Legend and Legacy of Anna Safely Houston.
The museum’s largest fundraiser is eastern Tennessee’s most prestigious antique show. The 33rd annual Chattanooga Antiques and Garden Show will be held February 22-25 at the Chattanooga Choo Choo’ Grand Central Station. Many of the South’s finest dealers will offer their best wares.
After you visit the Houston, allow time to meander along part of the 12 miles of greenways and concrete paths that make up the Bluff View Art District. The Hunter Museum of American Art boasts the finest collection of American art in the Southeast. Eclectic shops offer extensive selections of regional, national and international fine art and craft. Many times the artist will be on site creating his or her wares. Three restored homes decorated with fine art and heirloom antiques are available for bed and breakfast guests. When it comes to food, everything from gourmet cuisine from around the world to freshly made chocolates tempt the palate.
For More Information:
Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, 201 High Street, Chattanooga, TN 37403. Phone 423-267-7176.
Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2 Broad Street, Chattanooga, TN 37402. Phone 800-332-3344