A Victorian Settee and the White Cliff Hotel

Last Updated 3/14/2024

By Jubilee P. Reid

Displayed in the Victorian Keith Parlor of the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum is a small rose-colored settee which once graced the ballroom of the popular White Cliff Hotel on Starr Mountain. This settee is dated to 1895 and is a typical example of late 19th century parlor furniture.

In the Victorian era, a well-adorned parlor was a society status symbol. Matching parlor furniture sets were fashionable and usually included a settee and a few chairs of various designs. Carved leaves and flowers often embellished the rosewood or mahogany frames. Shades of red, pink, or gold were favored upholstery fabric colors. A coordinating braided trim, referred to as “gimp” in the upholstery industry, was often applied to these furniture pieces to hide the seam between the fabric and frame as well as to add decorative detail. The cushions on fine furniture of this era were frequently stuffed with curled horsehair. Horsehair was favored due to its capability to retain its shape. The upholstery fabric could also be made from horsehair. Thick fabrics such as damask, velvet, and needlepoint were also common.

The museum’s settee stands 34 inches high, 48 inches wide and 17 inches deep. It is covered with velvet fabric secured to the frame with ½ inch nails and has ½ inch wide matching trim. The wooden frame has leaf carvings along the top edge. This settee also has a square 12-inch pillow made of the same pale rose fabric. There was a second matching settee which once belonged to Emma Sue Williams of Athens, though its current whereabouts are unknown.

The White Cliff Hotel was built near mineral springs on Starr Mountain on the McMinn/Monroe County line. Located roughly 2,000 ft above sea level, it was advertised widely as a medicinal retreat as the natural springs and mountain air were believed to heal a variety of illnesses and ailments.  An 1891 advertisement stated that a physician lived on site during the season to supervise medicinal use of the springs.

The first White Cliff Hotel building was constructed in 1860 on the northwestern side of the mountain. This building burned in 1869 but, very quickly, an even larger “L” shaped hotel replaced it, opening in 1871. Referred to as the “Saratoga of the South,” this hotel was three stories tall with 115 rooms. It had a ballroom on the first floor, a barbershop, and a lobby with a piano and organ. Perhaps the settee and its twin graced either side of the hotel’s main staircase. At times, up to 400 guests from many states stayed there including many of the elite. It is believed that President Theodore Roosevelt once visited the hotel when on a trip to the area.  

After the death of the hotel’s successful owner, James Harvey Magill (1823 – 1897), the building was used as a boardinghouse, then was purchased by brothers Jack and Harry Burn in the early 1900s. The once grand building was used as a hunting lodge before falling into disrepair and being demolished in the 1930s.

This settee was donated to the museum in 1985 by Harry Burn, Jr. and his mother, Ellen Burn, the wife of the late Harry Thomas Burn. The Burn family likely acquired the settee when they purchased the former hotel. Though worn, this 130-year-old couch was an elegant resting spot during the busy days of one of the most prosperous hotels in McMinn County.

To learn more about the White Cliff Hotel, come to the museum’s History for Lunch program at noon on Thursday, March 28th. Sheriff and local historian, Joe Guy, will be presenting on the history of the hotel and Starr Mountain.

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