Monday, May 26, 2014

The Johnstown Flood, May 31, 1889

Saturday May 31, 2014 will mark the 125th anniversary of one of the worst disasters in American history – the Johnstown Flood.  The Glessners were staying at the Brunswick Hotel in New York at the time, and two mentions of the calamity were made in Frances Glessner’s journal.

Brunswick Hotel, New York City

June 1st, 1889:
It rained at intervals all day yesterday and the wind blew in a most disagreeable manner.  Today we got up very early for John was to leave by the Penn. route for home (Chicago).  We went to a very early breakfast and found by the paper that the town of Johnstown Penn. had been swept away by a flood and all the trains were stopped – so John went to the ticket office and stopped his trunk and changed his route to the Mich. Central.

June 2nd:
Today I am alone and have rested on the bed and have read the account of the Johnstown flood.  The papers estimate the loss of life at over 1000 persons.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 occurred when a dam located 14 miles upstream of Johnstown, Pennsylvania on the Little Conemaugh River failed after days of unusually heavy rainfall.  It is estimated that 20 million tons of water (equivalent to 4.8 billion gallons) were released from the reservoir behind the dam, known as Lake Conemaugh.   The lake itself covered approximately two square miles and was situated 450 feet above Johnstown.  More than 2,200 people were killed, and many of the bodies were never found or identified.  The disaster resulted in the largest loss of civilian life in the United States at the time, only to be surpassed by the 1900 Galveston hurricane and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  Property loss was estimated at $17 million including the total loss of four square miles of downtown Johnstown and more than 1,600 homes. 

Johnstown was located in the narrow Conemaugh Valley in the Allegheny Mountains and the area was always subject to flooding due to its terrain and the large amounts of runoff from rain and snowfall.  The South Fork Dam was constructed between 1838 and 1853 as part of the canal system in the state.  It was eventually sold into private hands and acquired by industrialist Henry Clay Frick and other wealthy Pittsburgh residents, who converted the private lake into a summer resort.  The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club opened in 1881.

Cottages at Lake Conemaugh

A devastating rainstorm hit the Johnstown area on May 30, 1889; at the time it was the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in that part of the country.  Up to ten inches of rain fell in just 24 hours causing rivers to swell and overflow their banks, threatening Johnstown with severe flooding.  The president of the Club noticed the level of the Lake and the strained condition of the dam.  Warnings were sent to Johnstown but were ignored as there had been many false alarms in the past.

The South Fork Dam collapsed shortly after 3:00pm on May 31st sending the 20 million tons of water from Lake Conemaugh into the valley below.  Within 40 minutes the entire lake was drained.  The flood hit the small town of South Fork first which was on high ground, so the loss of life was minimal.  As the flood continued downstream, it picked up enormous quantities of debris including trees, houses, and animals.  The accumulated debris resulted in the flood being stopped temporarily at a railroad bridge, Conemaugh Viaduct.  But in less than ten minutes the viaduct collapsed and the resulting release of the water and debris produced a much larger and stronger wave as it headed toward Johnstown.  It decimated the towns of Mineral Point, East Conemaugh, and Woodvale and gathered more and more debris including miles of barbed wire from the Gautier Wire Works. 

The flood hit Johnstown a little after 4:00pm.  The wall of water and debris was moving at a rate of 40 miles per hour when it hit the town and was as high as 60 feet in places.  The water was stopped when debris piled up against a huge stone railroad bridge which carried the Pennsylvania Railroad across the Conemaugh River.  The debris caught fire and burned for three days.  When the floodwaters finally receded, the pile of debris at the bridge covered 30 acres and reached 70 feet in height.  It took months to clear and dynamite was needed as much of the debris was entangled in barbed wire.

Relief started arriving in the area within a few days when the stone railroad viaduct was repaired and trains were able to come into the area.  The disaster also marked the first major relief effort by the newly formed American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton who remained for more than five months.  Nearly $4 million was received from across the country and around the world, including significant donations from members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.  Many blamed the Club for not properly maintaining the dam although courts maintained that the disaster was an Act of God, so the Club and its members were never held legally responsible. 

Andrew Carnegie built the town a new library; today it is owned by the Johnstown Historical Society which operates it as The Flood Museum.  The Stone Bridge still stands and now forms part of the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, managed by the National Park Service.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Ames Monument by H. H. Richardson

On May 7, 2014, Bill Tyre, Executive Director and Curator at Glessner House Museum, and Robert Furhoff and John Waters, members of the House and Collections Committee, visited the Ames Monument in southeast Wyoming.  The monument is the only work of H. H. Richardson west of St. Louis and is probably his least visited site, due to its remote location off Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie.

The monument was commissioned by the Union Pacific Railroad to commemorate the efforts of brothers Oakes and Oliver Ames in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.  That extraordinary engineering feat was the result of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln, who considered it one of the most important acts of his presidency.  Little work was made on the railroad during the Civil War, but in 1865 Lincoln turned to his friend Oakes Ames, a member of the U. S. House of Representatives and the Congressional Committee on Railroads, to oversee its completion.  Oliver Ames served as president of the Union Pacific Railroad during construction.  The Ames brothers, who had made their fortune manufacturing shovels, contributed over one million dollars of their own money and raised another $1.5 million from friends and colleagues.  The railroad was finished in four years and its completion was celebrated with the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869.  Oakes Ames died in 1873 and Oliver Ames in 1877.

The construction of the monument was approved by stockholders of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1875, but no action was taken until late 1879 when H. H. Richardson was engaged as architect.  His selection was most appropriate as he had already designed two buildings for the Ames family in North Easton, Massachusetts - the Oliver Ames Free Library (1877-1879) and the Oakes Ames Memorial Town Hall (1879-1881).  

The site selected for the monument was at Sherman, Wyoming, 300 feet south of the highest elevation of the Union Pacific railroad line, at 8,247 feet above sea level.  (In 1901, the railroad tracks were moved to a lower elevation three miles to the south and the town of Sherman was abandoned).

Norcross Brothers was awarded the construction contract and work began in 1880.  A compound was built in Sherman to accommodate the 85 workers who spent the next two years completing the memorial.  (Supposedly no gambling or drinking was allowed).  

The source of the granite was Reeds Rock, located one half mile to the west.  The granite blocks, some of which weighed up to 20 tons, were skidded to the site by draft animals, and wooden cranes were used to hoist them into place.  The total cost was just under $65,000.

The monument stands 60 feet tall and is 60 feet wide at the base, where the walls are 10 feet thick.  The structure is designed in two parts.  In the lower half, the stone is laid in random ashlar, i.e. the stones are of varying heights.  In the upper portion, the stones are coursed ashlar, where the stones are of the same height within each course.  

Oakes Ames

Oliver Ames

The upper portion contains two stone bas relief medallions each nine feet in height, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  The east façade features a portrait of Oakes Ames, and the west façade features a portrait of Oliver Ames.  The north face features a simple inscription, in one-foot tall letters which reads IN MEMORY OF OAKES AMES AND OLIVER AMES.

Frederick Law Olmsted praised the monument and its setting, and architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, writing in 1934, stated that it was among Richardson’s best works and one of the very finest memorials in the country.

The monument with John Waters at left (for scale)

The monument is beautifully maintained by Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources which has also installed informative interpretive panels at the site.

(Contemporary photos taken May 7, 2014 by Bill Tyre and John Waters).

Monday, May 12, 2014

Edward MacDowell and the MacDowell Colony

Exactly 100 years ago, Frances Glessner carefully pasted a postcard into her journal that read as follows:

May 17th, 1914


My dear Mrs. Glessner –

You were one of those kind enough to buy tickets for the recital I gave, last Winter, for the benefit of the Association.

I am sending you our new report which I hope you will have time to look over.  I think it proves the importance of what we are doing.  Our financial struggle is very cruel, but the artistic value of it all beyond question.  Should you be near us, this Summer, will you not come and see it all ---

Thanking you for your kindness,
Sincerely yrs,                                                                                  
M. MacDowell (Mrs. E.)

The note was penned by Marian MacDowell, the widow of the great American composer and pianist Edward MacDowell.  Given the Glessners’ great love of classical music and their untiring support of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it is not surprising that they would have also been interested in supporting the MacDowell Association. 

Edward MacDowell was born in New York City in 1860 and began taking piano lessons at an early age, one of his teachers being the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño.  At the age of 16, his family moved to Paris and he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory.  Two years later, he performed some of his own compositions and a transcription of a Liszt symphonic poem at a recital.  Among those present was the composer Franz Liszt.

Soon after, MacDowell moved to Frankfort where he began teaching and composing.  In 1884, he married one of his American piano students, Marian Griswold Nevins (who was originally brought to Europe to study with Clara Schumann, only to find that she was away).  The MacDowells returned to the United States in 1888 living in Boston for eight years until he was appointed the director of music at Columbia University. 

It was also in 1896 that Marian MacDowell purchased an abandoned 75 acre farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire for $1,500 which they named Hillcrest Farms.  The beautiful woodlands and fields proved to be the perfect environment for MacDowell, and his composing flourished in the setting.  

Main house at Hillcrest Farms

MacDowell's log cabin retreat;
Marian MacDowell in the foreground

In 1899, Marian completed a one-room log cabin as a secluded retreat for her husband to compose away from all the activity at the main house at Hillcrest. 

MacDowell’s output during these years was significant and included two piano concertos, two orchestral suites, four symphonic poems, and four piano sonatas, as well as many songs and piano transcriptions.   His best known work today is To a Wild Rose, from his piano suite Woodland Sketches.

In 1904, MacDowell was one of the first seven people chosen for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  It was at the same time that he and Marian first discussed the idea of creating an artists’ colony at their summer home in Peterborough.  The year 1904 also proved to be a tragic turning point in MacDowell’s life.  He resigned abruptly from his position at Columbia University and soon after was injured in an accident where he was run over by a Hansom cab.  By this time, he began showing significant signs of dementia, and he was no longer able to compose or teach. 

Marian MacDowell deeded the Peterborough property to the newly formed Edward MacDowell Association in 1907, founding the artists’ colony she and her husband had envisioned a few years early.  Edward MacDowell died on January 23, 1908 and was buried on the property.

Marian spent the next 25 years of her life leading the MacDowell Colony, relying chiefly on donations for its operation.  Early supporters included Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and former president Grover Cleveland.  A talented pianist, she resumed her career giving recitals and performances as a means of raising money to support the Colony.  She became the foremost interpreter of her husband’s music.  It was for one of these recitals that Frances Glessner had purchased tickets.

In 1912, Marian MacDowell purchased an additional 184 acres of land in Peterborough, and in time the Colony grew to include 32 artists studios, all based on the initial log cabin built for Edward.  Each cabin was secluded and out of view of the rest, providing the optimal working environment in which he had thrived.  Marian MacDowell died in 1956 at the age of 98 and was interred beside her husband at the Colony.

The MacDowell Colony continues to thrive today, and is one of the leading artists’ colonies in the country.  Nearly 7,000 artists have been supported in residence, including more than 60 who have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes.  Among the notable works created by artists while in residence were Porgy by DuBose Heyward (upon which Porgy & Bess is based); Our Town by Thornton Wilder; Leonard Bernstein’s Mass; and Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland.  The MacDowell Colony was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962 and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1997.  For more information, visit  

(Selected images courtesy of the MacDowell Colony)

Monday, May 5, 2014

William Hair Haseler, silversmith

One of the loveliest decorative objects in the museum collection is a diminutive oval trinket box.  Recently placed on display on the dresser in the newly opened corner guestroom, the silver and enamel piece is the work of William Hair Haseler, a prominent English silversmith of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

William Hair Haseler was born to John and Sarah Evett (Hair) Haseler in 1821/1822 in Birmingham, England.  He married Elizabeth Rabone in 1851 and together they had six children.  In 1870, Haseler founded the company, W. H. Haseler & Co., specializing in gold and silver work, and jewelry. 

Five years later, Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) started a small shop on the corner of Regent Street in London.  Specializing in exotic goods from Japan and the Far East, his business thrived and he became a leading merchant to the upper classes, including famous members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.  The store soon became the most fashionable place to shop in London, featuring luxurious wares including fabrics, clothing, furniture, clocks, jewelry, wallpapers and decorative objects of all kinds.  His efforts to promote the Art Nouveau style, with its depiction of leaves and flowers in flowing ornamental lines, were so influential that the term “Stile Liberty” became the accepted term for the style in Italy. 

During the 1890s, Liberty formed relationships with many leading English designers.  In 1898, Liberty and Haseler created a formal partnership to launch the Cymric silver line under the title “Liberty and Co. (Cymric) Ltd.” using free lance designers.  One of those designers, Archibald Knox (1864-1933), began designing for Liberty in 1899.  He focused on the new Celtic design work for the Cymric range and its pewter counterpart, known as Tudric.  Haseler was responsible for making many of Knox’s designs.  Knox was a highly gifted designer and is largely credited with the success of Cymric silverware.  He continued to design for Liberty until 1912. 

Picture frame, Liberty and Co. (Cymric) Ltd.

William Hair Haseler died in December 1909 in Shropshire, but his company continued in partnership with Liberty until 1926.  Haseler pieces can be found in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as well as many other museums throughout England.

The trinket box in the Glessner collection measures just 2-1/4 inches in width and 1 inch in height.  Delicate wire work trim encircles the base which sits upon four bun feet.  The removable lid features blue and green enamel work with four silver hearts (or heart-shaped leaves) set into the surrounding stylized border.

Several marks are stamped onto the underside of the piece, as shown above.  The “W.H.H.” is the maker’s mark for William Hair Haseler.  The anchor is the city mark for the city of Birmingham, England.  The next mark, known as the lion passant, is the assayer’s mark indicating that the piece meets the standards to be considered sterling.  The next mark, a lowercase “h” is the date mark indicating the piece was made in 1907.  One additional mark, not shown above, reads “930” and refers to the purity of the silver.  This number indicates the amount of pure silver in parts per thousand – 930/1000 – or 93% pure silver. 

Although small and easily overlooked, this beautiful box exhibits both the Glessners’ sophisticated tastes and Frances Glessner’s interest in silver during this period when she was making her own pieces.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...