Friday, March 27, 2015

The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg

Garden and Nursery, Colonial Williamsburg
It may technically be spring, but as I look out at the snow falling, it sure doesn’t feel like it. I spent some time in Colonial Williamsburg last week, and even in Tidewater Virginia, it’s been a hard winter—but I did see some signs of life. Daffodils are blooming and some courageous vegetables are growing under their glass cloches. It got me thinking about gardens and what ideas from Colonial Williamsburg we might incorporate into the grounds at the Alice.

Colonial Williamsburg was originally conceived of as primarily an architectural restoration, but landscape gardening was an important component of the overall appearance of the historic area. The Foundation hired Arthur A. Shurcliff, a Boston landscape architect who had worked closely with Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn, the architectural firm in charge of the restoration, to design gardens and other outdoor spaces that would complement the restored structures. Shurcliff served as Chief Landscape Architect from 1928 to 1941, and his vision of the colonial garden proved to be enormously influential for decades.

James Galt House after restoration, 1935
Gardens are by their very nature changeable and ephemeral, and there was very little physical evidence left by the 1930s of what Williamsburg’s gardens had looked like in the 18th century. Shurcliff and his staff had to piece together many small bits of information and add a good dose of imagination to come up with their garden plans. They read travelers’ accounts, letters, and journals; they looked for accounts by explorers and naturalists who described local flora; they examined tax records and insurance policies, which sometimes included sketches of lot layouts. Some archaeological work was done, which uncovered landscape features such as the foundations of outbuildings, walkways, paved service areas, and wall and fence lines.

Shurcliff based the Custis Tenement garden
on one of Sauthier’s designs.
Shurcliff also studied surviving plantation homes and gardens in the region. He was particularly influenced by the 18th-century towns of North Carolina and the gardens designed there by Claude Joseph Sauthier, a French landscape gardener, surveyor, and mapmaker who came to the colony in 1767. Sauthier left detailed plans of his urban gardens, which indicated that the garden plans fashionable in the colonies were very similar to those that had been popular in England in the late 17th and early 18th century.

These colonial gardens were characterized by “geometric symmetry within an enclosed space.” Walls and hedges delineated the space of the garden, and plantings kept to defined spaces separated by straight walkways. By the mid-18th century, more “naturalistic” gardens were becoming fashionable in England, but these did not appeal to colonists, who had more than enough nature to contend with. To them, “a garden was nature tamed, trimmed, and enclosed within a fence or hedge.”

Kitchen garden behind Wetherburn’s Tavern
Shurcliff and his staff worked with the best information available to them, but over the years it’s become clear that they (like everyone) were influenced by the aesthetic tastes of their own time. Today, Shurcliff’s gardens are considered better examples of the Colonial Revival than they are authentic recreations of colonial gardens. As new sources are found, changes are being made to Williamsburg’s gardens. New archaeological techniques have been particularly valuable—traces of plants and even pollen have been found and identified, leading to more accurate information about what species were known in the area in the 18th century. As CW comes to focus more on the everyday life of ordinary individuals, kitchen gardens, where vegetables, fruit, and herbs were grown, have joined the more elaborate formal gardens of the Colonial Revival era.

Hand-colored lantern slide showing the formal gardens
of the Governor’s Palace, 1935
We have very little information about what the Alice’s grounds looked like during the early days of the Museum, but the Colonial Williamsburg style of garden was so wildly popular from the 1930s to the 1950s that I have to think Alice Miner was influenced by it. If you have any photographs that show the outside of the museum during this period, we would love to see them! In the meantime, I will be continuing to research this fascinating topic—and dreaming of warmer days.


M. Kent Brinkley, The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1996)

“The Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg,” special issue of The Architectural Record (December 1935)

Marley R. Brown III and Edward A. Chappell, “Archaeology and Garden Restoration at Colonial Williamsburg,” Journal of Garden History 17, no. 1 (1997): 70-77

Colonial Williamsburg Gardens

F. S. Lincoln, “James Galt House, Exterior From Left,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed March 27, 2015,

F. S. Lincoln., “Governor's Palace Garden,” John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed March 27, 2015,

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Homes of Our Ancestors: R. T. H. Halsey and American Decorative Arts

One very important person was not included in my last post about the makers of the American Wing: Richard Townley Haines Halsey. He deserves a post of his own, because Halsey did more than any other individual to determine how the American Wing would interpret decorative arts.

R. T. H. Halsey in 1941
R.T., as he was known to his friends, was born in 1865 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to a well-to-do family whose ancestors had come to North America in the 1630s. Halsey graduated from Princeton in 1886, and his father purchased him a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Though he had a very successful career in finance, Halsey also devoted his time to collecting, researching, and writing about American antiques, and he published his first book, Pictures of Early New York on Dark Blue Staffordshire Pottery, in 1899 at the height of the china-collecting craze.

Halsey was involved in nearly every important early exhibition of American decorative arts in the United States. He wrote the catalog for the 1906 exhibit of American silver at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; he lent pieces from his collection to the Hudson-Fulton and the 1922 Duncan Phyfe show at the Metropolitan. In 1914, he was elected as a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum and became chairman of the Committee on American Decorative Arts. By this time, plans for the new American Wing were well underway, and Halsey eventually gave up his seat on the Stock Exchange to devote more time to his curatorial work (technically, he remained an unpaid volunteer who “perform[ed] the function of curator”).

18th-century silver bowl once owned by Halsey and
exhibited in Boston, 1906, and at the Hudson-Fulton.
Now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Like Robert de Forest and Henry Watson Kent, Halsey took great pride in the American past and personally identified with figures from the colonial era. He was very proud of the fact that his grandfather had served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington and was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati, an elite organization of former Revolutionary War officers. Halsey believed that there was a direct connection between the heroic individuals of the past and their surroundings: their elegant homes reflected their cultivated taste and education, which in turn contributed to their sense of civic responsibility and patriotism.

Although Halsey’s vision of the past could be very romantic and selective (the rooms of the American Wing were furnished only with objects that had belonged to the very wealthy and elite), he was also a careful historian. His two books on the collection, A Handbook of the American Wing and The Homes of Our Ancestors, situated the American Wing’s rooms in their historical context and explained how curators used inventories, wills, newspaper advertisements, travelers’ accounts, and design books to make appropriate selections of furniture, wallpaper, carpets, window treatments, and upholstery.

Room from the Powel House, as depicted
in the Met Bulletin, November 1924
In the American Wing, Halsey celebrated not only the founding fathers who had purchased decorative arts, but the artisans and craftsmen who produced them. The items in the Met’s collection were valued for their historical associations and because they were unique, handmade pieces that (at least in some cases) could be identified as the work of a specific individual. Halsey set 1825 as the cut-off for the American Wing, believing that nearly everything made after that date was hopelessly tainted by mechanization and mass production.

Halsey hoped that the refined and gracious rooms of the American Wing would foster an appreciation of the values of the past. Modern Americans, especially those who lived in cities in impersonal apartment buildings with machine-made furnishings, and who sought out entertainment at movies and amusement parks, needed to be shown a better way of living—which would help them become better citizens. Halsey was particularly thinking of the many immigrants who had come to the United States since the 1890s; like many white, native-born Americans, he felt that they had failed to become thoroughly assimilated.

It’s no coincidence that the American Wing (and the Alice) opened in the same year that Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, a highly restrictive immigration law that was specifically designed to reduce the numbers of immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe. The Colonial Revival and the Immigration Act of 1924 both originated, at least in part, from concerns that the United States was rapidly changing due to the combined forces of immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. As Halsey put it in The Homes of Our Ancestors, “The tremendous changes in the character of our nation and the influx of foreign ideas utterly at variance with those held by the men who gave us the Republic threaten, and unless checked, may shake, the foundations of our Republic.” Restricting immigration was one way to stem this “influx of foreign ideas”; educating new arrivals about American history and culture through decorative arts was another.


R. T. H. Halsey and Charles O. Cornelius, A Handbook of the American Wing (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1924).

R. T. H. Halsey and Elizabeth Tower, The Homes of Our Ancestors: As Shown in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York (Garden City: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1925).

Wendy Kaplan, “R. T. H. Halsey: An Ideology of Collecting American Decorative Arts,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (April 1982), 43-53.

Jeffrey Trask, Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Makers of the American Wing

The opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924 was the culmination of decades of work by a dedicated group of collectors, scholars, curators, philanthropists, and museum administrators. We’ve met some of them already as organizers of the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of 1909, but let’s get to know our cast of characters a little better. 

Robert W. de Forest
 Robert W. de Forest (1848-1931) came from an elite New York family. His maternal grandfather was the president of the New York Stock Exchange and his father a prominent attorney. In 1872, he married Emily Johnston, the daughter of railroad president John Taylor Johnston. By the 1890s, de Forest had largely retired from his legal practice and commercial dealings to focus on philanthropy, and was deeply involved with the work of the Charity Organization Society and the Russell Sage Foundation.

De Forest also followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law, who had been the first president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming a trustee in 1889, secretary of the board in 1905, and president in 1913—a position he would hold until his death in 1931. De Forest and his wife were themselves both collectors of American antiques, and it was largely due to his influence that the Metropolitan began to exhibit and collect American decorative arts. In 1922, Robert and Emily de Forest announced that they would donate the funds needed to build the new American Wing of the museum, ultimately contributing $272,000 to this endeavor—about $3.5 million in today’s dollars.

John Fox Slater Memorial Museum
When de Forest took up his position as secretary of the board of trustees in 1905, he hired Henry Watson Kent as his assistant. Although Kent came from a much more modest background than de Forest, the two men shared many of the same ideas about the importance of making art widely accessible to a broad audience. Kent (1866-1948) began his professional career at the Boston Public Library, and in 1888 was hired as the curator of the just-completed Slater Memorial Museum at Norwich Free Academy in Connecticut. In 1900 he left Norwich to become the librarian of the Grolier Club, a private society of bibliophiles, in New York. Kent’s work at these elite institutions allowed him to form connections with important figures (mostly men) in the world of business, art, and philanthropy. Kent and de Forest worked closely together to organize the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, and in 1913, when de Forest became president of the Met, Kent stepped into his vacated position as secretary of the board. 

It seems to have been Henry Kent who first raised the idea, even before the Hudson-Fulton, that H. Eugene Bolles might be willing to sell his collection to the Metropolitan. The matter required some delicacy, and Kent approached Bolles’s cousin and fellow collector, George S. Palmer, to ask if he thought the collection might ever come on the market. Palmer replied that it was quite likely—Bolles and his wife had no children, and the collection was getting so large that it was beginning to feel like something of a burden. Palmer wrote to Kent, “He is inclined to look for a suitable place for its permanent keeping. As he cannot afford to furnish such a place himself and cannot afford to present his collection to a public institution, he is approaching the point where he will be willing to sell it to be kept together in some public place.”

H. Eugene Bolles
H. Eugene Bolles (1838-1910) began collecting in the 1880s, at a time when it was still considered unusual and even rather eccentric for a man to collect American antiques as a hobby. Bolles was a lawyer and lived in Boston, but he spent most of his spare time scouring the countryside for old furniture. He also worked with dealers and attended country auctions, and was known to be willing to go to great lengths and endure extreme discomfort to acquire the objects he sought. The Bolles home was crowded with furniture—an inventory taken at the time of the collection’s sale showed that in the parlor alone were “five Bible boxes, three chests, two court cupboards, a highboy, a lowboy, a desk, three tables of various sizes and shapes, four armchairs, a roundabout chair, three Chippendale chairs, eight mirrors, a Hepplewhite dressing case, a bodice with embroidered front, and smaller objects of pewter and other metals, wood, bone, and glass.”

It was clear to Robert de Forest and Henry Kent that the Bolles collection was ideally suited to become the nucleus of the Met’s American decorative arts collection. Actually acquiring the pieces was more difficult, since the museum had no designated funds to purchase American art. It was fortunate, then, that de Forest was the legal adviser to one of the wealthiest women in the United States, Margaret Olivia Sage, and that Mrs. Sage had long been a proponent of public service and philanthropy.

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage
in 1910
Margaret Olivia Slocum (1828-1918) was born in Syracuse, New York, the only child of middle-class parents. Despite her family’s financial struggles, she was well educated, graduating from Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary. Margaret worked as a teacher and as a governess in Syracuse and in Philadelphia, and in 1869 she married financier (some might say robber baron) Russell Sage. When Sage died in 1906, Margaret inherited his entire fortune of $70 million, which she was free to use however she wished. Mrs. Sage chose to dedicate herself primarily to educational causes, donating funds to Syracuse University, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Vassar, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She also founded Russell Sage College in her late husband’s hometown of Troy, New York. In 1907, she established the Russell Sage Foundation, which worked to address issues related to immigration, labor, city planning, health care, and other matters of social policy.

Mrs. Sage agreed to purchase the Bolles collection in the fall of 1909, as the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition was coming to an end. She then made a gift of the entire collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In one stroke, the Met had acquired a comprehensive collection of American antique furniture from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century. Items from the Bolles collection were put on display almost immediately, but de Forest and Kent were dissatisfied with the way the pieces looked in the museum’s galleries, and the collection was so large—886 pieces in total—that most of the items had to be kept in storage or in study rooms. Clearly, a dedicated wing for American art, one with rooms of an appropriate scale, was necessary.

Part of the Bolles Collection as it was displayed prior to the construction
of the American Wing, ca. 1915