Video Release Celebrates Van Buren Table, Duncan Phyfe’s Genius
The park has released a video celebrating and explaining the remarkable reproduction table adorning the dining hall in Van Buren's home, Lindenwald. The video is available at http://www.nps.gov/mava/
Release of the video on August 16 coincides with the anniversary of the 1854 death of Duncan Phyfe, the craftsman who created the original 20 foot long accordion action dining room table used by President Van Buren as he entertained political allies and adversaries alike. Van Buren, referred as the “Little Magician,” worked his magic around the table to achieve harmonious interaction and political ends. One such visitor who dined with Van Buren at Lindenwald was Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, a one time political adversary popularly known as the “The Great Compromiser.”
The film features an interview with craftsman John Kovacik of Little Falls, NY, who built the reproduction table seen at the historic site today. The original table had been loaned to the park by a previous owner when Kovacik made measured drawings. The original table was later sold at auction and its current owner and whereabouts are unknown. Fortunately, with the drawings in hand, Kovacik was able to create an exact reproduction of the original table over a period of three years. Kovacik's thorough knowledge of 19th century furnishings and his incredible woodworking skill – perhaps matched only by Phyfe’s - are apparent as he explains the complexity of the table.
Phyfe, who emigrated from Scotland in 1784, began as a cabinet maker in Albany but then moved to New York City where his services were retained by Martin Van Buren to create a versatile dining room table that could be adjusted in size to accommodate the seating requirements of different dinner parties. This would allow either a large gathering or a smaller party to assure “harmonious interaction.” When not in use the table could be collapsed and stored out of the way to create a greater space for the mingling of the guests. In the period before cell phones and internet, the face to face experience of an elegant dinner was a means to influence relationships and conversation, which in turn had an impact on party politics and historical events.
The table is used by park rangers to emphasize the dynamic political situation in the nation during the years prior to the Civil War, when Van Buren resided at Lindenwald. Indeed, the decision to form the Free Soil Party to prevent the newly conquered Mexican territory of the southwest from becoming a region of slave states was made at Lindenwald around the original Duncan Phyfe table in 1848.
Did You Know?
That in September of 1849, Henry Clay was accompanied on a visit to Lindedwald by his slave Levi. Levi slept in Clay's room at Lindenwald on the floor in a bedroll.