Passionate collecting and a reverence for the past helped to create some of America’s most popular and enduring displays.
By Mildred Jailer-Chamberlain
Enter a magnificent building crowded with fine art objects, or a modest structure specializing in a single area, such as glass, automobiles, or textiles. Did you ever wonder how that museum came to be? Museums were not created with the wave of a wand. Some were a community effort, but often the most interesting were a labor of love undertaken by a dedicated individual who was innovative, enthusiastic, and had the means to undertake a major project.
And, as the following five examples show, sometimes the story behind the story is interesting, too.
The tales ran wild about Isabella Stewart Gardner, founder of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. She was said to keep lions in her cellar and walk them on a leash. It also was whispered that she washed the steps of a church as a penance and greeted visitors to her home from a perch in a tree. None of the stories were true, but in her strait-laced Victorian time, Isabella was seen as an eccentric. Surely, her independent manner and thought were unconventional.
Born in 1840 as the daughter of a rich man, and 20 years later the wife of one, Isabella Stewart Gardner was able to indulge in a broad range of activities and interests. She threw lavish dinner parties and attended Red Sox baseball games; she studied Oriental philosophy and music.
Perhaps most importantly, with an inheritance of $1.6 million from her father, she could begin to seriously amass examples of the fine art she loved. And she did not stint. A Rembrandt self-portrait she purchased in 1896 inspired her to develop a museum collection. The Rembrandt was followed by three other significant purchases: Titian’s “Europa,” now considered the most important Italian painting in America; a polyptych by Simone Martini; and a fresco by Piero della Francesca are said to be unrivaled outside of Italy.
Soon after the death of her husband, John Lowell Gardner, in 1898, Isabella began to make the dream they shared come to pass. She founded a museum to hold their collections. Although Isabella had formed most of the collections herself, she and her husband often shared in the pursuit. The idea of a museum appealed to him as well.
It was rumored that to create the museum, Isabella dismantled a Venetian palazzo and brought it to Boston. Like other rumors about Isabella, it was not true. A building in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palace, with three floors opening onto a central courtyard that would be filled with flowering trees and plants was, in reality, Isabella’s own concept. When museum architect Willard T. Sears was presented with a gold medal honoring his 1901 design by the Philadelphia Society of Architects, he noted that the award should have been given to Isabella Stewart Gardner. What he failed to state was that Isabella was on the site every day supervising construction. She had good reason for the museum seal she designed: a shield bearing a phoenix, the symbol of immortality, and the motto, C’est mon plaisir — “It is my pleasure.”
Nearly 200,000 visitors each year thrill to the Venetian splendor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Concerts are offered there amid the beauty of the courtyard and the wondrous objects.
The Gardner Museum is located at 280 The Fenway in Boston, and is open Tuesday through Sunday and on holidays (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s) from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, ($11 on weekends), $7 for seniors, and $5 for college students with current ID. Children under 18 are admitted free. Visitors can rent an audio tour of the museum for $4. For more information, phone (617) 566-1401 or visit www.gardnermuseum.org.
The story of the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, is the story of a real Renaissance man, Henry Chapman Mercer. Born to a family of wealth, Harry, as he was called, graduated from Harvard. He traveled widely in Europe by houseboat while studying history, collecting artifacts, and publishing his own books. He was attracted to archaeology and practiced it at excavations in Europe and in the United States where, among finds at other sites, he uncovered a cache of 117 argillite blades at Ridge’s Island in the Delaware River.
Harry’s participation in archaeology brought him an appointment as a manager of the Museum of Science and Art at the University of Pennsylvania (later renamed the University Museum) and curator of American and prehistoric archaeology there. Chances are his archaeological activities led to his lasting focus on old-time tools. In fact, by 1897 he was able to group, label, and show 767 items in his tool collection in an exhibition called “The Tools of the Nation Maker” at the Bucks County courthouse. The exhibition catalog he prepared described each of the objects, its links with the Old World, and the folklore associated with its use.
But before a museum existed to hold his growing tool collection, Harry also explored at least two other areas — tile design and manufacture, and the use of concrete. The stylized tiles initiated by the William Morris school of Arts and Crafts in England especially appealed to him. Not content with tiles as a hobby, he founded what was to become the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. (His tile designs brought him master status and a bronze medal from the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston.)
Convinced that concrete was easy to mold, fireproof, inexpensive, and combined well with other materials, Harry used it to construct his tile-decorated, 44-room home in Doylestown called Fonthill. The mansion now is a museum featuring more than 900 prints and other objects Harry collected from around the world, as well as examples of his tiles.
In 1913 Harry joined eight laborers (and a horse named Lucy) in building the Mercer Museum. The museum building is dramatically different from others of its time, shaped as an imposing seven-story, castlelike concrete structure. Harry donated the museum to the Bucks County Historical Society in 1916.
The concrete walls, floors, ceilings, and four-story main gallery are thick with Harry’s varied collection, which includes woodworking, metal working, and agricultural tools; textiles and textile-working tools; dairy tools; furnishings; and folk art. The immense interior is illuminated only by shafts of sunlight that fall through small-paned Gothic-style windows.
The Mercer Museum is located at 84 S. Pine St. in Doylestown. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Tuesday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5.50 for seniors, and $2.50 for children ages 6 to 17. Phone (215) 345-0210 for more information.
Fonthill is situated at East Court Street and Route 313 in Doylestown. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m. (The last tour begins at 4:00 p.m.) Admission is $7 for adults, $6.50 for seniors, and $2.50 for children ages 6 to 17. Phone (215) 348-9461 for more information.
Her name may have been unusual, but then again, so was Ima Hogg, founder of the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens in Houston, Texas. She realized early on, while collecting American antiques, that a museum would be the appropriate showcase. The year was 1920, four years before such a notion was legitimized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, when the American Wing made its debut.
Ima’s father named her after the heroine of an epic poem about the Civil War, written in 1878 by her uncle Thomas. (Ima was short for Imogene.) She was a descendant of a family that had come to Texas in the early 1800s and made its mark in government and business. Ima’s father, James, became governor in 1890 — as the first native-born Texan to be elected to the post. He served two terms and also became involved in the state’s first oil boom.
The story goes that in 1901 Ima’s father purchased a plantation near West Columbia, Texas. He was convinced oil would be discovered on the land, and stipulated in his will that the children not sell the property until 15 years after his death. Oil was discovered there in 1918 — 12 years after he died — when Ima was in her 30s.
Ima never married. She and two of her brothers, Will and Mike, built a family home designed to complement Ima’s growing collection of antiques. Completed in 1928, the mansion is situated in the River Oaks area of Houston where the Buffalo Bayou winds lazily around three sides of the 14-acre rolling, wooded estate. The location inspired Ima to name the home “Bayou Bend.” Her brothers lived there, too, but only briefly; one married and moved away in 1929, and the other died the following year, leaving her as sole occupant.
Ima’s close friend and friendly collecting rival, Henry Francis du Pont, encouraged her to make the house a museum, as he had done with his home, Winterthur, in Delaware. Already mindful of the importance of a museum to preserve and display her antiques, she deeded Bayou Bend to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in the late 1950s. She wholeheartedly agreed with the need for new interiors, such as elegant parlors and stylish bedrooms, to create sympathetic settings and new arrangements of the antiques.
Today the home features 28 room settings; overall, it contains some 5,000 examples of American furniture, paintings, works on paper, silver, ceramics, glass, and textiles dating from 1620 to 1870.
Although Ima retained the right to live in the house for the remainder of her life, she moved to a high-rise apartment when the Bayou Bend museum was completed. She continued to collect antiques until her death in 1975 at age 93.
Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens is located at 1 Westcott St. in Houston. Visitors may take a self-guided tour of the facility on weekends only; otherwise, Tuesday through Saturday, guided 90-minute tours are offered. Admission fees for these tours are $10 for adults, $8.50 for seniors and students with ID, and $5 for children ages 10-18. Self-guided garden tours are available for $3 for adults, Tuesday through Saturday; guided hour-long garden tours are available for $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and students with ID, and $4 for children ages 10 to 18. A combination house and garden tour is available as well.
Bayou Bend is accessible via Memorial Drive in Houston. Turn south at Westcott. Parking is available in a free public lot. Please keep in mind that reservations are required for all guided tours. Phone (713) 639-7750 for more information, or visit www.bayoubend.uh.edu.
What would have become of one of America’s most prominent historic sites — Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia — if an astute and caring clergyman and a sympathetic man of vast wealth had failed to recognize its value?
Williamsburg was the capital of the Virginia Colony from 1699 to 1776 and of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1776 to 1780. However, by the 20th century, this once-splendid town was disappearing from the landscape. Regal mansions and simple cottages, trade establishments, and artisans’ shops had been destroyed or hidden by modern facades and additions. New buildings were interspersed with the old.
Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg during the 1920s, was concerned with what was happening to the history in his town. He visited New York City to speak at a meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa senate in 1924, where he met John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a member of the group who was already recognized for his community service. Dr. Goodwin described the situation to Rockefeller and invited him to visit Williamsburg with the hope that the philanthropist would be inspired to restore the entire town to its colonial appearance.
Indeed, after two visits to Williamsburg, Rockefeller was convinced of its value, and committed himself to the mammoth task. As the work of restoring and rebuilding progressed, both Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller became personally involved. To be near the ongoing project, they purchased and restored a handsome 18th-century frame house. They furnished the home, called Bassett Hall, with pieces from other Rockefeller homes and with antiques and fine art collected by Mrs. Rockefeller. (The furnishings have remained in Bassett Hall, and Mrs. Rockefeller’s collections are now housed in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg.)
The Rockefellers and their family frequently stayed at Bassett Hall, and regarded it as a haven for rest and relaxation. They prized it for its “peaceful and homelike” qualities. Over the years, renowned people such as the British Queen Mother, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Japanese Emperor Hirohito have visited Bassett Hall.
After John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s death in 1960, his family remained committed to the well-being of Colonial Williamsburg, donating time and land, and financing even more restorations. Bassett Hall and its grounds were given to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and are now open for public tours. The Rockefellers also established an endowed chair to encourage research, publication, and teaching.
Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, is open year-round. For a vacation planner that includes information about admission tickets, sites, and special events, phone (800) 447-8679. Colonial Williamsburg is located off Interstate 64, exit 238. Watch for green-and-white visitors center signs.
The Shelburne Museum in Vermont, near the shores of Lake Champlain, is a favorite stop among tourists. Its 45 acres hold attractions that range from folk art of every description (including furniture, tools, and toys) to railroad cars and a 220-foot Lake Champlain steamboat. Add to that a cadre of 18th- and 19th-century buildings that were moved to the site to hold the collections. An energetic and enterprising woman, Electra Havemeyer Webb, was almost single-handedly responsible for what is on view today.
As the daughter of a New York City high-society couple who were noted collectors of fine art, Electra was inspired to collect, too. She began at age 10 with a small group of dolls given to her by her grandmother. (That collection would eventually number some 300 dolls.) As a young woman, Electra purchased a painting by Goya, but fine art was a short-lived interest. To her mother’s horror, a wooden cigar-store Indian captured Electra’s fancy when she was 18. The “everyday” object that so delighted her led to collecting ventures that influenced Electra’s activities for the rest of her life.
After her 1910 marriage to James Watson Webb, Electra gave her collecting enthusiasm full attention. Soon the newlyweds’ Long Island home was overflowing with Electra’s Americana: everything from quilts, samplers, furniture, glass, and pewter to more cigar-store Indians. By this time, Electra had become fond of Shelburne, Vermont, where her in-laws had a home. They soon gave James and Electra a home nearby. Before long, this house, too, was crowded with Electra’s discoveries.
A museum was the obvious answer to Electra’s never-ending collecting fervor. And what better site than her beloved Shelburne? In 1947 Shelburne Museum became a reality. Electra’s father-in-law’s collection of horse-drawn vehicles was the first permanent exhibit.
The Shelburne Museum is located on Route 7 in Shelburne. It is typically open from mid-April through early December. In 2002, it will reopen on April 13. Hours vary according to the season, as do admission prices. Between April 13 and May 17, 2002, 12 buildings and galleries will be open, and admission will cost $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 18. From May 18 to October 27, 2002, all 39 buildings and galleries will be open, and admission will cost $17.50 for adults and $8.75 for seniors and children ages 6 to 18. During the latter time frame, admission tickets are valid for two consecutive days.
Ample free parking is available at the museum. For more information, contact the Shelburne Museum, P.O. Box 10, Shelburne, VT 05482; (802) 985-3346, www.shelburnemuseum.org.