Tuesday, March 17, 2009

From House to Home for Great Art

By: Kate Betz, Manager of Public Programs
The name Harry St. Clair Zogbaum conjures up a number of images in my head: tweed coats and bowler hats, afternoon teas, and Colonial Revival structures built in Cooperstown in the 1930s. When Edward Severin Clark, brother of our museum’s founder Stephen Carlton Clark, decided to build the commanding estate that would eventually become the Fenimore Art Museum, he selected Zogbaum as his architect. Zogbaum had worked extensively in the Cooperstown area during the 1920s and 1930s and was well known both for his Colonial Revival style and for his use of local materials. In fact, the stones used to build Fenimore House came from nearby abandoned mills.

Construction likely began in mid-1929 or early 1930. Zogbaum had drafted plans that created a grand estate with many classic features. The house contained 46 rooms including the usual expectations for a house of this size—multiple bedrooms, a study, library, ballroom—but also a few less usual features including a basement level indoor pool. The plans included – at least initially - keeping intact the cottage structure which currently stood on the property and which had been built by James Fenimore Cooper. Arthur Telfer took the first photos of the new house, including the one below, which were dated on the back November 14, 1930. They show the house partially complete with the old “Fenimore” cottage attached as a south wing. (Later the cottage was torn down and replaced.)
The house was finished late in 1932 and its occupant hosted a number of holiday parties to celebrate the completion. Sadly, Edward S. Clark died unexpectedly September 19, 1933, after living in the house for only 9 months. By the terms of his will, the farm and house passed to his brother Stephen C. Clark who, eleven years later, would donate the home to the New York State Historical Association for use as a museum space.

The process of turning a private home into a modern museum was a formidable one, but was made much simpler because of Zogbaum’s help. Zogbaum designed the modifications for the house that would pave the way for what we now know as the Fenimore Art Museum. Bedrooms, library, ballroom and even the pool were all converted into gallery and office space.
This original house blueprint is one of my favorite objects in our collection. You can see where it has been relabeled in red pencil to demonstrate where all of the museum’s galleries should go. I don’t know that I could say why this object above any other is my particular favorite. I think it just creates such a unique visual perspective on the creation of a museum that I had never before considered. How would you go about deciding whether the dining room or the library was the ideal location for a new museum’s collection of James Fenimore Cooper ephemera? What is in fact the most efficient way to turn an attic into a proper collections storage area?

Looking at the blueprint, I can almost picture the many hands that have not only touched it in particular, but that have helped to create the museum that I now walk through every day I come to work.
top: Arthur Telfer, Fenimore House under construction, November 14, 1930. Smith and Telfer Collection, New York State Historical Association.
bottom: Original Fenimore House blueprint, NYSHA Library Special Collections.

1 comment:

Paul D'Ambrosio said...

Thanks, Kate, for this post. I think of the building as having three phases of history: Fenimore House the Mansion (1932-1945); Fenimore house Museum (1945-199); and Fenimore Art Museum (1995-present). I knew Fenimore House Museum very well, and vividly recall mounting exhibitions in the renovated swimming pool in the basement level! A Great Hall it was not! The back terrace was a lovely place for cocktails during summer seminars, but nothing like the terrace we have today, which is about five times the size. And the rabbit warren of second floor rooms that was made into the Scriven Gallery were nearly impossible to work into a coherent museum exhibition. One note; we have variously had the Cooper material in the dining room, the paneled room, and the ballroom. Anyway, thanks for bringing back those memories of a challenging but beautiful building where I began my museum career.

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