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Under the spell of Lord Byron

Light shines through the "Lord Byron" window at the Hay House on Monday.
Light shines through the "Lord Byron" window at the Hay House on Monday. For The Telegraph

One of the highlights of a tour of Hay House is the window on the stair landing between the second floor main level and the third floor bedroom level. Referred to as the Lord Byron window, the double-hung window does indeed feature a portrait of Byron at the top of the upper sash of the enameled glass windows. There are numerous portraits of Byron on file, many of which have been reproduced in glass, among them a small image of the poet in a window in the Ottawa, Canada, public library, where he is joined by such literary luminaries as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Archibald Lampman, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Moore and William Shakespeare.

Lord Byron remains the leading poet of the Romantic era in literature, having gained fame and uncertain fortune at a very young age. He was handsome and charming, sometimes to his own detriment, and often manipulative in his closest relationships. However, that reputation has not tarnished the allure of his poetry for the legion of poetry lovers who can cite passages relevant to almost any situation.

Anne Tracy Johnston, in 1852 the young bride of William Butler Johnston, was not immune to the effects of Byron’s poetry. According to Jonathan Poston, Hay House director, diaries which were found years after the Johnstons lived in their house and are attributed to Anne Johnston, are full of quotes from Byron, many of which were noted during the time she and her new husband were traveling Europe on their three-plus-year honeymoon. “I think she might have been obsessed by Byron,” Poston said.

What else would account for the Johnstons commissioning a stained glass window for their new Macon home with a reproduction of a portrait of the famous English poet as its centerpiece? The face of Byron is seen as you look up from the grand center hall and is a focal point from the bedroom level as you descend the stairs.

Their generations were close together – Anne Tracy Johnston lived in the mid-19th century and Lord Byron died at 36 in 1824. The latter’s rise in popularity, in an age before instant news, can be described as meteoric, as he gathered devotees all over the world. He traveled extensively during his short life, recording his experiences and escapades in his poetry in what at the time was considered questionable phrasing. Byron spoke at least two foreign languages and embraced the cultures of the countries he visited and in which he lived for several years.

The mystery of the young Mrs. Johnston’s devotion to the poetry of Lord Byron may never be completely understood, and it may be uncomplicated and no mystery at all. However, in looking at the abundance of biographical information available about Byron, he was the rock star of his generation, described by one of his many scorned lovers as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

With the recent celebration of the 40th anniversary of Hay House becoming one of the landmark houses under the aegis of the Georgia Trust, more and more of the history of the two families that lived in Hay House is being revealed through continuous research and discovery of recorded history since the house was completed close to the end of 1860. The Johnstons had the house designed based on their fascination with Italian Renaissance architecture when they traveled throughout Italy.

After Anne Tracy Johnston’s death in 1896, one of her two daughters, Mary Ellen Johnston Felton, and her daughter’s husband, William Hamilton Felton, lived in the house. Later their son, William Hamilton Felton Jr. and his wife raised two sons in the house; the house did not pass from the initial owner’s family until it was purchased by the Parks Lee Hay family in 1926.

Since becoming a house museum that is open to the public, extensive restoration has taken place, accelerating after 2000 due to sound management and acquisition of substantial financial resources. There are three areas of the house dominated by stained glass art windows or by unusual architectural glass windows – the landing of the grand hall, the dining room and the music or ball room.

In the summer of 2017, a storm with rapid blasts of high winds damaged the Lord Byron window, specifically a large portion of the lower sash. The spectacle of dismantling the damaged portion and loading it for safe carriage to upstate New York for repairs was recorded for The Telegraph by staff photographer, Beau Cabell. It was delicate work by Nigel Johnson of Cohoes Stained Glass, and a few helpers, who safely packed and loaded the window that rises a full story above the window ledge on the landing.

In March, Johnson returned with the fully repaired window, just in time for the spring season at Hay House, and the summer when the house has few days that are not filled with weddings, bridal receptions and other related affairs. Plus, Spring Stroll is just around the corner, May 4-6, when the grounds of Hay House will be filled with colorful plants from numerous nurseries throughout the area for a long weekend of house and garden tours and for the chance to purchase plants and accessories for your home.

Hay House is open seven days a week for tours and, during the house and garden tour, tickets are available which include a tour of Hay House. If you have not taken the time to look at the stained glass window that fills the wall of the stair landing, take time to do so during Spring Stroll. In addition to the return of the Lord Byron window, other restoration is in progress on the third — bedroom — level where layers of old paint and 20th century additions have been removed to reveal the original painted floor and faux wall finishes similar to those uncovered from the first, kitchen level to the cupola.

Brush up on the history of Hay House, the three generations of the Johnston family and the last owners, the Hays, before your next tour. Hay House has legends yet to be revealed, some which may be as provocative as the intrigue of Lord Byron’s poetry which held Anne Tracy Felton in its thrall.

Katherine Walden is a freelance writer and interior designer in Macon. Contact her at 478-742-2224 or kwaldenint@aol.com.

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