Thursday, May 19, 2011

Chestnut Hill House Evolves into a Home for Art

Chestnut Hill House Evolves into a Home for Art 
By James Weaver

Some people have called it the “Addam’s House” because it resembles the house in the television show The Addams Family. Actually, no one knows where the name of the handsome Victorian mansion at the corner of Bells Mill Road and Germantown Avenue, Chestnut Hill, originated. Charles Knox Smith (1845-1916), a prominent Philadelphia businessman (oil brokerage and gold and silver mining in Mexico) and member of the Philadelphia Common Council (before it became City Council) acquired the house and grounds in 1901. Built sometime before 1867, it was already called “Woodmere” and the name stuck. Smith was the fourth owner. He was living in the city’s Kensington neighborhood at the time, but he was rapidly outgrowing his space. He had become interested in art and art collecting and his collection was growing.
It’s not surprising then to learn Smith added an art gallery during his first year in his new home and, a few years later, a second larger gallery with a balcony.  Smith had developed a “good eye” for buying art and with help of some friends he began to show up at estate sales and art auctions.  Soon the walls (and floor space) in his two galleries were crammed full of paintings and sculpture. The works were displayed in the manner of the times in “salon fashion” frame to frame and floor to ceiling.

Smith believed that creating a public art gallery (museum) would be beneficial to the culture of his community (greater Philadelphia) and stated in his will that his Woodmere property should be used in this way.  Most major American cities already art museums, but it would be 12 years after Smith’s death before construction began on the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1940, the Art Associations of Germantown and Chestnut Hill were granted the property to be used as their meeting place and an art gallery to display Smith’s collection and other works.  Fast forward nearly 40 years.  In 1978, the Woodmere Board of Trustees voted to join the American Association on Museums (AAM), the national accreditation organization and to undertake changes and improvements needed to qualify for accreditation. It became fully accredited in 1985.  Over the years numerous changes and improvements have been made to Charles Knox Smith’s Victorian mansion that became Chestnut Hill’s much loved Woodmere Art Museum, but much of its original character has been retained for the enjoyment of all.

This Spring visitors will be able to visit Woodmere, the mansion turned art museum, and see some of the most important works from Smith’s personal collection.  The Founder’s Gallery and Parlor Gallery, rooms largely unchanged from the Smith era, will feature distinguished landscape painting from his personal collection.  These include an exquisite painting by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900),  Sunset in the Berkshire Hills, 1857. Church was a highly acclaimed member of the Hudson River School of American painters. Also, on exhibit is The Spirit of Peace, 1851, by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1826-1900) also of the Hudson River School.  This painting has a twin from Cropsey, The Spirit of War, in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

From April 3 through June 26 and exhibit titled Pennsylvania Impressionism and Landscape: From the Collection of Woodmere Art Museum and the Promised Gift of Dr. Dorothy J. del Bueno will be presented in the Kuch and Balcony Galleries.

Since the 1940s, Woodmere has exhibited and collected the work of Pennsylvania Impressionists. Since that time, the collection has deepened and broadened through many important and generous gifts. This exhibition showcases the recently promised gift of the collection of Dr. Dorothy J. del Bueno which includes works by William L. Lathrop, Alice Kent Stoddard, Martha Walters, and Ethel Ashton. Integrated with Woodmere’s holdings, this incredible gift adds depth and scope to Woodmere’s permanent collection.

Among the fine paintings to be seen is the work Country Hill by Pennsylvania Impressionist painter Walter Schofield (1867-1944) and a recent acquisition, the gift of Marguerite and H. F. Lenfest, titled Winter by acclaimed Philadelphia artist Antonio Martino (1902-1988).  Concurrent with these exhibits will be shows of works by renowned Chestnut Hill artist Violet Oakley and Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Charles Demuth.

This article by James Weaver appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local in April 2011.

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