Lincoln, Grant, and Two Other Guys

Lincoln, Grant, and Two Other Guys

Ignatius Creegan and Rod Givens, Antique Hat Blocks

Antique hat blocks are a rare commodity; many milliners in the 1930s and ’40s burned their blocks at the end of each season so their designs could not be copied. The couple’s collection numbers more than 400, in addition to the blocks they use to make their current designs. Photo: Robert Severi

In 2003, milliners Ignatius Creegan and Rod Givens transplanted their home and studio business, Ignatius Hats, from a modest dwelling in Richmond, Virginia, to the Thomas Wallace House in nearby Petersburg, a city steeped in Civil War history. The 7,000-square-foot Italianate mansion has 13-foot ceilings and 16 fireplaces, several with their original marble intact. When the men aren’t in their workshops creating sculptural, fanciful headwear, they’re restoring their living space.

Tell us about the history of your house.
Rod Givens: The house was built in 1855 by Thomas Wallace, a merchant and lawyer, and later owned by the Seward family, who ran the Seward Trunk Co., at the time the country’s largest trunk and luggage manufacturer. It’s most famous for being the place where President Lincoln met General Ulysses S. Grant on April 3, 1865, to discuss ending the Civil War. At the time, Grant had taken over the house for his temporary headquarters. A descendant of the Seward family, who lives a few blocks away, has the two chairs they sat in.

Ignatius Creegan: In my mind, this is one of the places where the Civil War ended. Some 10 days later, Lincoln was shot.

How did you come to own this structure with such an esteemed place in history?
Creegan: It wasn’t intentional. In Richmond, we’d take walks down Monument Avenue, a street lined with mansions. We’d joke, “Where is our mansion? Everybody else has a mansion.” For a while, there were houses in rough shape that maybe we could afford, but every time we saved more money, the prices jumped up. In Petersburg, though, you could get whatever you wanted. When I saw this house, I thought Rod would really like it – the size of it and that it was formal and ornate.

Givens: I wasn’t totally sold on Petersburg. I thought it was a pretty depressed city. When I saw the house from the outside, it was a bit of a wreck. But I walked in the front hall and just fell in love with it.

On the top of my list was to have a grand space. As soon as you walk in, you get that feeling. But if you’d seen it, you wouldn’t have believed it. The guy who owned it before had piles of stuff everywhere, in every corner, and it was not in good shape. Before that, it was almost demolished for a church parking lot. We think if it had been neglected another three or four years it wouldn’t have made it. It’s still very much a work in progress.

What are some less-obvious ways the house reminds you of the past?
Creegan: There are servants’ bells rigged up all over the place. In the dining room, there’s a porcelain tube coming out of the wall – an antique intercom system – that led straight to the kitchen.

Givens: One thing I love is coming down the stairs into the main hall. It’s so easy to imagine a woman in a hoop skirt coming down the stairway because it’s so wide.

Suddenly you were looking at a much larger space to furnish. Did you immediately start thinking of what would go where, and did you agree?
Givens: Before we moved here, neither of us thought too much about history. But when you move into a town that has so much Civil War history, it seeps in, so we wanted a historic theme.

Creegan: Rod is the interior designer, and I don’t argue. I collect more machinery and materials and that kind of thing. I have somewhere between 400 and 500 hat blocks in my studio and a collection of vintage straw machines, used to sew straw braid.

How would you describe your decorating aesthetic?
Givens: I call myself an organized hoarder. I’ve always liked antiques – just whatever hits me. I don’t stick with one period. Empire works really well in this house, but I have some Victorian.

Tell us about some of your favorite works of art.
Givens: I’m definitely a fan of folk art. We both love Mary Jackson’s sweetgrass baskets. We don’t usually do trades, but we traded a lot of hats for one of her baskets. We love [mixed-media sculptor] Deborah Rogers in Norfolk [“Layer Upon Layer,” Oct./Nov. 2012], who made a piece just for us. Another favorite piece is a sculpture by Bruce Chapin, angels with half a wing. They can only fly if they’re holding hands. And I really like Mose Tolliver paintings; I have several in my studio.

Creegan: Rod paints, too, and he’s also good at putting together a tableaux, a narrative, the way he groups things together. I had some bronzed baby shoes from my mother – there were eight of us children – and it was his idea to put them together in a basket. Some things we found under the original basement kitchen floor (which was dirt) – two porcelain doll heads, a little teacup – he put those in a little glass box. I would never have thought of doing those things.

Rod, I understand you’re also the collector of the antique toys. You must have hundreds on display. What do they mean to you?
Givens: Some I’ve had since childhood. The first year we lived here, one room upstairs was stacked with boxes of them to pull out after we renovated. But once I realized we might never finish renovating, I took them all out. Growing up, I always had a lot of toys. I was an introverted kid, and I made up stories with my toys. I think that’s how I developed an artistic mind. What I bring to the hats is whimsical. Ignatius sculpts them, and I do the trim.

With your hats, you’re taking something with a strong traditional heritage and putting your own contemporary and often playful spin on it. Would you say you take the same approach with your living space?
Givens: That’s a perfect way of saying it. Our hats are reminiscent of the past, while still being contemporary and wearable.

You’ve been here 10 years. Have your feelings about Petersburg and your home changed?
Creegan: It’s funny, we have more friends here than we had in Richmond. It’s less cliquish, and in Petersburg you keep track of people easier. There’s a big arts community, and other people are fixing up buildings the way we are. People in town love this house. Living in such a historical house in a historical city, you have to feel responsible.

Diane Daniel is a writer in Durham, North Carolina.