Physical object: Architectural feature from Barnum's home, Iranistan

From Barnum Museum

Date manufactured/created
1847 – 1848
Fanciful architectural element believed to have been saved from P. T. Barnum's home Iranistan, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  The "oriental villa," as it was described, burned to the ground in December of 1857, only a decade after it was built.  This feature is the only architectural element thought to have survived, and was said to have been pulled from the building by a firefighter and saved by later generations of his family.  Although it appears to be carved sandstone, it is actually made of wood painted with a gritty material to resemble the surface of reddish-brown sandstone.  The element features a bearded, devilish face surrounded by leaves, creating the overall shape of an acanthus leaf.  This kind of architectural element with an odd-looking face is known as a "grotesque," similar to the better known "gargoyle."  Pictures of Iranistan show that there were dozens of these grotesques placed at regular intervals around the top of the ornate structure.  Barnum's taste for imaginative human and animal imagery is also evident in the furniture and household decorative arts that decorated his homes.  
P. T. Barnum's first home in his adopted city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was located on present day Fairfield Avenue, technically part of the neighboring town of Fairfield at the time.  It was heavily inspired by the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England, which Barnum had visited in the mid-1840s.  Using drawings Barnum had acquired of the Pavillion, architect Leopold Eidlitz designed the mansion in the Moorish revival style.  The resemblance to the Royal Pavilion is unmistakable.  The cost was $100,000 in addition to the seventeen acres of land with a conservatory and other ornate outbuildings.  No photographs are known to exist, but the mansion's decor was fully described in news articles of the day.  (See 2006.005.003 and 1996.009.001 for two original watercolor pictures of Iranistan.)  The cause of the fire that consumed the mansion was believed to be smoldering ashes from a workman's pipe.  Barnum and his family were not occupying the house at the time, as repairs were being made, and the fire did not become apparent until night.
associated with
previously owned by
Accession/ID number
EL 1990.001.005