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Faith in Vermont: The House that Electra Built

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Posted on September 9, 2014 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Just outside the town of Shelburne, an affluent Burlington suburb, a modest purple roadside sign reading “Shelburne Museum, Open May 9 – October 31” stands at the entrance to a parking lot with sweeping views of the hills bordering Lake Champlain. The museum itself is not readily apparent. Through the fence surrounding the grounds one catches glimpses of a red round barn, a lighthouse, a covered bridge, and – is that a steamboat?

The first impression is less a museum than the oversized miniature golf course of a putt-putting giant.

It’s a wonderful place to take children; in addition to exploring the lighthouse (which protected Lake Champlain’s Colchester Reef from 1871 to 1952, and was reassembled piece by piece on the Museum’s grounds) and the steamboat (The S. S. Ticonderoga, which served ports along Lake Champlain from 1906 until 1953, when it was moved two miles overland to its resting place on the Shelburne’s lawn), there’s a locomotive and rail car parked at the former Shelburne Railroad Station, a working carousel, the old Castleton jail, and The Owl Cottage, which is filled with dress-up clothes, toys, books, and crafts.

That’s only a fraction of what’s on view at the Shelburne Museum, which encompasses over 150,000 works of art and Americana throughout 39 exhibition buildings and galleries on 45 landscaped acres. It's exhausting, which is precisely why the Shelburne is such a wonderful place to take children; one morning at the Museum, and they’ll nap all afternoon.

For three years, I visited the Shelburne Museum only  in the company of children. I saw the same things repeatedly – the carousel, the Ticonderoga, the Owl Cottage – to the exclusion of most of the collection. So I never had time to wonder: Why?

Why this strange assemblage of buildings – barns, a one-room schoolhouse, a meetinghouse, and a roadside tavern -- mostly from Vermont in the 1700s and 1800s, which were transported to the Museum in pieces and  reassembled?

Why the eclectic collections: a 4,000-piece wooden circus parade, over 400 quilts, 225 carriages, 400 dolls, 900 decoys, folk art, 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, and Impressionist masterpieces by Degas and Manet? The Museums’s website boasts: “Shelburne is home to the largest U.S. museum collections of glass canes, trivets, and food molds.”

Why?

I finally asked these questions over Labor Day weekend, when my husband and I visited the Shelburne Museum alone to see what we’d missed in the company of our four young children.

The answer, as it turns out, is: Electra Havemeyer Webb.

Electra Havemeyer Webb founded the Shelburne Museum in 1947; it’s her creation, her brainchild, the labor of love she built to house her “collection of collections.”

Her biography reads like a mash-up between Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemmingway. Electra was an heiress, born in 1888 to Henry O. Havemeyer, who was founder and president of the American Sugar Refining Company, and Louisine Havemeyer, who was an early collector of Impressionist art. Electra's childhood home was a Fifth Avenue mansion decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany. She attended The Spence School. In 1910 Electra, wearing “a white satin princess gown with a long court train,” married J. Watson Webb, whose mother was a Vanderbilt. The wedding gifts included a diamond tiara from the Vanderbilts. The marriage would produce five children, a Park Avenue apartment, and homes in Vermont and Long Island.

But the society heiress was eccentric. During World War I, Electra drove an ambulance in New York City; during World War II, she helped direct the American Red Cross Blood Bank. She accompanied her polo champion husband to his matches and on hunting trips, in which she participated. An enormous bear that she shot in Alaska is now on display at the Anchorage airport; another hunting story has her gutting a dear with a can opener when she couldn’t find her jackknife.

Most eccentric of all was her taste in "art." At age 19, Electra Webb made her first acquisition: a wooden cigar-store Indian that she saw while driving through Stamford, Connecticut. She went on to collect over 80,000 objects, primarily folk art and Americana. Her collections filled her three houses, their attics, and an indoor tennis court. She quotes her horrified mother as saying, “How can you, Electra, you who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?”

The Shelburne Museum is the result of a storage problem, created to answer that common question: “What do we do with these 28 old carriages?”

Electra Webb’s brother-in-law inherited Shelburne Farms, the Vanderbilt-Webb estate on Lake Champlain. Along with the 110-room house, a horse barn the size of Madison Square Garden, and one of America's first private golf courses, were 28 antique carriages and sleighs. Electra couldn't bear to see the carriages go, so she purchased  land in Shelburne and built a two-story horseshoe barn to store them. She started buying old structures throughout Vermont and reassembling them on the site to house her various collections. The Shelburne Museum opened to the public in 1952.

Electra Webb's museum inspires certain questions:

Is the difference between "hoarding" and "collecting" the amount of storage space one can afford?

What was behind Electra’s fascination with Americana and utilitarian objects? She said, “I try to find the art in folk art,” and “What ordinary people do is important and beautiful.” Is the Shelburne Museum, then, a paragon of democratic art?

Or is it the rebellion of an American aristocrat, not just against the tastes of her mother, but against the luxuriously privileged life she’d always led?

What did Electra Havemeyer Webb know of “folk,” of “ordinary people?” Does her museum represent a sentimental yearning for “the simple life?" Is the Shelburne Museum Electra Webb’s “Rosebud?” Was she like Marie Antoinette, playing at a pastoral fantasy on her farm at Versailles?

All of the above?

If answers exist, they might be found in the strangest building on the Shelburne Museum grounds: the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building.

The Memorial Building wasn't part of Electra Webb’s original vision; her children built it after her death. The exterior is a replica of a Greek Revival farmhouse in Orwell, Vermont, that Electra had admired. Inside this empty shell, her children reconstructed rooms from the Webbs' 18thfloor apartment at 740 Park Avenue. (Interestingly, the floor plan of the original 18thfloor apartment, on view in the Memorial Building, indicates that the Webb children lived with nannies on the 17thand 19thfloors.) The furniture, carpets, window treatments -- even the wallpaper -- were moved from New York to Vermont, and installed in a fake farmhouse for the public to view. It's like an eerie modern pyramid.

The rooms where Electra Webb lived bear no resemblance to the folksy New England aesthetic of her museum. The original Havemeyer flatware is on display, designed by Tiffany with no two pieces alike. The walls are hung with portraits of Webb and Havemeyer ancestors, alongside an impressive selection of Impressionist paintings from Louisine Havemeyer’s collection. In Electra Webb’s floral bedroom, silver-framed photographs of her children and grandchildren fill a tabletop, and an embroidered pillow reads: “We Live in Deeds Not Years.”

It's the apartment of a wealthy New York woman.

Electra Webb spent most of her life on Park Avenue; her connection with Vermont was the country home she maintained on her in-laws’ land. Does the Shelburne Museum represent the intrusion of outside Big Money upon the “real Vermont?”

Electra Havemeyer Webb and her Big Money don’t fit with what I like to consider the “real Vermont.” I’ve lived in  places -- Virginia, Connecticut, Manhattan, the San Francisco Bay Area – where Big Money was an undeniable presence, where houses had staff entrances and the papers had society columns. Vermont is not one of those places.

In my version of the “real Vermont,” Vermonters are simple, down-to-earth people. They are contractors, teachers, farmers. Vermont’s median household income is about $40,000 – a nice, middle class number. Even if Vermonters have money, they don’t spend it on things like mansions or art; no, they wrap it in flannel and tuck it under their mattresses for a rainy day.

The “real Vermont” in my mind is red barns, green hills dotted with Holsteins, white steeples, covered bridges.

It is a vision not unlike that of Electra Havemeyer Webb.

I will ignore the fact that, in 2012, the number of Vermont’s dairy farms fell below 1,000, and that small family farms are struggling to complete with massive factory farms in the Midwest and West. Or that the state’s homeless population increased 25% over the past year. Or that Vermont’s per capita rate for heroin and opiate addiction is the second highest in the country. I will also ignore the fact that 15% of Vermont houses are secondary residences, or that tourism accounts for billions of dollars spent in the state and 7.2% of employment. In other words, I will ignore the undeniable presence of modern day Electra Webbs, affluent “flatlanders” from Boston and New York who maintain vacation homes near Vermont’s lakes and ski resorts.

One final question, then: Is Electra Havemeyer Webb, a wealthy “flatlander” with a mission to preserve her vision of what Vermont once was, more than just an eccentric figure from the past? Might today’s Electra Webbs, with their lake cottages and ski condos, represent Vermont’s future?

I suppose there are worse things that could happen to a state.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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