Written by Lia Hobel
Photos by Michael Butcher
Thistlethwaite Americana, an antique gallery on Washington Street, has an inviting atmosphere with a gracious host. The proprietor, Taylor Thistlethwaite, loves to offer up stories that delight novice and established antique collectors alike. The traditional “don’t touch” mentality is not what you’ll find here. “Let’s sit down at an 18th-century table and have a cup of coffee,” he says. Thistlethwaite wants to get to know his customers, share stories about the items in his collection, and help potential patrons discover something that makes them happy. “I always say, you should be able to sit in a room at night and an object should speak to you.”
Everything displayed on the walls and showcased on the floor is hand-selected by Thistlethwaite and is a reflection of his personal taste. His collection includes elegant furniture, folk art, mid-century items, and belongings that are perfect conversation pieces. At age 35, Thistlethwaite has earned a reputation in the antique world for his fine eye and exquisite taste. He is the youngest dealer to ever be accepted to The Winter Show, a prestigious art, antiques, and design fair held in New York City. He also participates in some of the country’s top antique shows including the Delaware Antiques Show and The Philadelphia Show.
“The piece behind you was designed by a guy named Paul Evans who was the father of American Brutalist furniture and on top we have a Harriet Frishmuth bronze. She was one of the greatest Art Deco American sculpturists. Then above that is a painting from the 1970s by Ernie Barnes who is one of the most seminal 1970s African American artists that we have right now,” he points out with excitement. Without skipping a beat, Thistlethwaite continues to exhibit his expertise and rich historical knowledge of every furnishing in the space. He points out an easy chair made in Philadelphia around 1750. “It’s one of the earliest known easy chairs of this form,” he says. “You look at the crazy lines and kind of spookiness of the arms compared to the brutal edge of the Brutalist piece next to it, and you see that this stuff doesn’t go perfectly together but it relates.”
Connecting the pieces to historical timelines and interpreting an artist’s logic in designing their work is just one of many facets of Thistlethwaite’s job. It’s not a skill you develop overnight — it has to be acquired over time and through formal training. Thistlethwaite’s parents and grandparents were all collectors. He credits them for instilling his appreciation for antiques during his childhood. He grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and moved to Glasgow, Kentucky, when he was around 13 years old. His family has had a farm in Glasgow since the late 1700s. “I fell in love with treasure hunting as a kid,” he says reminiscently about antique road trips with his father. “We used to go to Middleburg and then out to the [Shenandoah] Valley and hit all these antique shops and old estates. I remember him throwing me up in the attics and telling me to go find something up there.” That passion for treasure hunting never dwindled.
His father, a surgeon, collected antiques as a hobby. Thistlethwaite knew early on that a medical path was not for him. “I made a C in freshman biology so I knew I had to find something else,” he explains. He attended Centre College and earned a degree in American history with an emphasis on the colonial period. He then went to the University of Kentucky for a master’s in historic preservation. During this time, Thistlethwaite gained a wealth of knowledge as an intern for Sumpter Priddy, one of the foremost scholars on southern antiques. “I was doing work for him in the summer while I was in college and then when I went to grad school. I even helped him at The Winter Show, so it kind of came full circle that I was able to come back and do this on my own.”
In 2013, Thistlethwaite and his wife, Rebecca, opened a showroom on the first floor of his Alexandria home to display his inventory for collectors. In the midst of COVID-19, when many antique shows were canceled, Thistlethwaite was eating dinner in Middleburg and saw the for-lease sign in the space where Thistlethwaite Americana now lives. “What makes Middleburg so unique is the fact that we have so many people coming through from different areas and there’s already a strong collector base.” As Thistlethwaite explains, having a physical storefront is wonderful because he can serve everyone who walks in the door — not just dealers.
The furnishings in his showroom are all unique to their place of origin. “Little markers” on the pieces help Thistlethwaite trace each object back to the individual cities in which they were made. This is all part of the allure of collecting antiques. “You have so much history combined into one piece. Maybe we don’t know who owned it initially, but these pieces have been treasured for hundreds of years so at least we can get some points,” he says.
As opposed to previous decades when people may have wanted a house entirely full of antiques, Thistlethwaite says people are shifting toward having just a few individual accent pieces. “You got to have fun with this stuff,” he says. “I have things in here for the novice collector or somebody who just is interested in getting started, all the way up to museum and collector grade.”
Given the passion that Thistlethwaite has for his inventory, one might wonder if it is difficult for him to part with the items. However, Thistlethwaite says discovering, photographing, and living with the items before passing them on to collectors is gratifying. “It’s not even about a sale, it’s more about adding to the next generation of the history [of the object].”
Thistlethwaite now lives in Upperville with his wife and their new son, William, who was born in April. He hopes to pass down his love for antiques and treasure hunts to his son. In the backroom of his shop, Thistlethwaite has an antique highchair waiting for William once he is old enough to sit at the table.
For Thistlethwaite, love of his profession stems from the joy his clients experience as new owners of his preloved pieces. He says, “As long as it’s something that captures your fancy or makes you smile, that’s what it’s all about.” ML
Thistlethwaite Americana is located in Middleburg at 116 Washington Street. For more information, please visit thistleamericana.com.
This article first appeared in the June 2022 Issue.