Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Five Questions with the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House

Eugene, Oregon

The Shelton McMurphey Johnson House. Image courtesy of the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House

As the most elaborate example of Victorian architecture in Eugene, Oregon, the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House is more than just a local landmark---it's a piece of history. Built in 1888 by Thomas Winthrop Shelton and his wife, Adah Lily Lucas Shelton, the "Castle on the Hill" was home to three different families before its conversion into a museum. Today, visitors can explore the beautifully restored rooms and gardens, enjoy afternoon tea, or take a class on Victorian life. The house's Executive Director Sara E. Palmer spoke with us about what makes this Eugene treasure worth visiting.

NEA: In your opinion, what makes the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House unique?

SARA E. PALMER: Eugene lost many of its historic downtown buildings to 1960s and 70s urban renewal programs. The Shelton McMurphey Johnson House is one of our surviving treasures. Set on the terraced south slope of Skinner’s Butte, right over downtown and the train station, it’s a visual reminder of Eugene’s history, telling us that we can, as a community, choose to save the best of the past.

NEA: What’s your favorite part of the house and its gardens?

PALMER: My personal favorite spot is the window in my office in what used to be the hired girl’s room---I can look out over the driveway and see everyone coming and going! And I like knowing I’m just one in a long line of “hired girls” who’ve kept tabs on things here, looking out that window.

Many of our visitors enjoy seeing the upstairs front bedroom, which we call “Grandma’s Room." It’s furnished with an Eastlake bedroom set which was bought by Dr. and Mrs. Shelton for this house in the 1880s. We like to think that you can walk into this space, with its marble-topped dressers, high windows, and lace curtains, and imagine that it’s 1911. Mrs. Shelton has taken the train down from Portland to visit her McMurphey grandchildren, but she’s stepped out to run some errands down on Willamette Street. And while she’s gone, you can explore….

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The Shelton McMurphey Johnson House, as seen from Eugene's train station c. 1911. Image courtesy of the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House

NEA: Is there anything in particular about the house that children find most enthralling?

PALMER: Up in the attic, we have a large-scale model of the house, built by the Eugene Miniature Club. Children love it! It gives them a chance to walk around the outside of the building at the same time they’re inside it, and lets us talk with them about architectural history and what buildings say about the people who live in them.

We also have a new elementary grades curriculum for group tours. Kids are excited about that because it involves role-playing and a chance to handle actual historic objects.

NEA: What are some of the things that visitors might learn about the past from visiting the SMJ House?

Like a lot of house museums, our focus is on domestic life. This summer we’re running some classes in aspects of that, from flower arranging to canning to clothes, to help visitors get a hands-on feel for what life here used to be like. You can learn more about those programs on our web site.

We also have an intern working on documenting and interpreting the military memorabilia collections of Dr. Curtis Johnson, one of the last private owners of the house. Dr. Johnson served in both World Wars, and while on duty in the Pacific, he was the pediatrician to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s son. In the 1950s he retired to Eugene, where his wife Eva had grown up, and turned the house’s tall Victorian turret into a private retreat and display area for his service mementos.

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Interior of "Grandma's Room." Image courtesy of the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House

NEA: Do you have any favorite stories of local lore associated with the site?

PALMER: After her husband Curtis’s death, Dr. Eva Johnson continued renting rooms in the building to University of Oregon students. We regularly have visitors who lived here in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, or came to parties here. Dr. Johnson was hard of hearing toward the end, and it didn’t bother her if the students got up to, well, everything you would expect college students to get up to! Today, those students are all grown up, and they tell us they’re thrilled to see the building restored to its Victorian glory. Dr. Johnson wanted the house to stay an active part of the Eugene community, and we like to think we’re carrying on her legacy.

Finally, part of what makes the Blue Star program special for us as an institution is that many of our staff and volunteers are vets or members of service families. My brother, Capt. David Palmer, USAF, is currently stationed at Iraq’s Joint Base Balad; our board president was raised in a service family; and several of our volunteers and their spouses had careers in the military. We are glad to have this chance to make servicemembers and their families welcome here.

Shelton McMurphey Johnson House
303 Willamette Street
Eugene, Oregon 97401

Please visit the Blue Star Museum website for more information about the program and to find participating museums.

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