Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
5:44 PM EST, November 17, 2011
By Rebecca Massie Lane
Special to The Herald-Mail
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
— "Ode on a Grecian Urn" John Keats (English, 1795-1821), written 1819, published 1820.
From the late Victorian 19th century into the first three decades of the 20th century, city planning, city park development and fine arts museum buildings emerged in a widespread nascent period of American urban planning.
High-minded ideals, such as those written by Keats, undergirded America's City Beautiful Movement, and Britain's "Garden City" movement. The development of Hagerstown's City Park and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts were local examples of this enthusiastic era.
By the late 19th century, American cities had become overcrowded, unsanitary, even dangerous, and citizens urged a call to action.
To show how cities could improve and even remake themselves, during the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, a model city of grand scale was built. Known as the "White City," it presented classical architecture, gardens, public art, modern transportation, all in orderly streets, blocks, and plazas.
The creation of master plans for a number of major cities resulted directly from this important exposition. Chicago, Detroit, and downtown Washington, D.C., formed teams of architects, landscape designers, horticulturists and gardeners to develop beautiful cities with gardens and museums. It was believed that beauty, not only for its own sake, would inspire moral and civic virtue among urban populations and would help battle poverty.
In the nation's capital for example, the McMillan plan, was enacted to provide a means of completing and expanding upon the original L'Enfant plan of 1791. In the context of the McMillan Plan, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Council of Fine Arts by executive order in 1909. He appointed 30 painters, sculptors, furniture designers, architects, landscape architects and garden designers to this aesthetic review board.
In Hagerstown, planning for City Park and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts followed the lead of the major cities. The City Park was formed from the acreage known in the 19th century as "Heyser's Woods," where the Heyser Family had built their home (now the Mansion House). It was also the site of the first Hagerstown Fair, held in 1852, where a half-mile horse-racing track was later built, and where both Union and Confederate troops camped during the Civil War.
In 1890, the West End Improvement Co. acquired the land that would become City Park. By 1916, public pressure paved the way for the City of Hagerstown to purchase land and develop it as City Park.
Two years later, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill creating a five-member Park Commission and in 1921, landscape architect George Elberton Burnap (1885 to 1938) was engaged to design the park. Burnap had served as a landscape architect for the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Washington, D.C., between 1912 and 1917. He studied architecture and landscape architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University and the University of Paris. He was responsible for the design and redesign of many beloved public spaces, including the Tidal Basin and Montrose and Meridian Hill Parks in Washington. He wrote the book, "Parks: Their Design, Equipment and Use."
During the development of City Park, the husband-wife team of Anna Brugh and William Singer Jr. determined to donate their museum of fine arts to the park. They negotiated a unique private-public agreement with the City of Hagerstown and Washington County and chartered by the Maryland General Assembly. The museum and its surrounding neighborhoods, including Oak Hill, embodied the ideals of the City Beautiful movement. The museum's architects, Hyde and Shepherd of New York City, subscribed to the prevailing Beaux Arts architectural style of the City Beautiful movement, and based their design for the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts on Classicism.
According to the City Beautiful philosophy, through its provision of beauty, the museum would improve the lives of the citizens, provide them with the ability to imagine a better life, and help them fight the damaging effects of poverty.
The City Beautiful movement felt that by elevating the lives of the poor through exposure to beauty, they would be able to imagine a better life for themselves, and if they could imagine a better way, they would also seek to find it.
The museum would provide a unique civic service through collections of art of the highest quality, through free admission to the museum's galleries, and through an abundance of art-education opportunities.
The museum has exceeded its obligation of providing citizens with access to beauty, achieving not only the promise made at its founding, of collections of the highest quality, but also attaining national museum accreditation.
It provides not only free admission to the exhibition galleries, but also free art-education opportunities, hundreds of programs for children and adults, concerts, festivals, lectures and other enriching activities. More than 50,000 people, including more than 7,000 Washington County Public School students, are served annually by the museum. The majority of those who benefit from the museum's services are tax-paying citizens of the county.
For 80 years, the museum's board and volunteers have worked diligently and voluntarily to support the museum and help it grow in artistic excellence and in service to the citizens. Today, for every $1 from local governments, the museum board provides $4 from the private sector.This illustrates how effectively the museum is a good steward of public funds, and how, 80 years later, the museum exemplifies the ideals espoused by the City Beautiful movement.
On a daily basis, visitors to the museum may pause in front of a given work of art, only to realize in a flash of inspiration: "Beauty is Truth!"
Art remains long after our human lives have expired. The images created on paintings, in sculpture, on Greek vases, continue to tell their stories from generation to generation.
The museum's "Diana of the Chase" sculpture captures a moment in time; the arrow shot from Diana's bronze bow is forever aloft. The marble "Head of Abraham Lincoln" captures his character, his life story, his struggles. The Frederick Church landscape of the Hudson River Valley evokes the pastoral natural world.
In works of art, embedded messages tell of times past and reassure us of the continuance of civilization. They have the power to inspire us or calm us.
Commensurate with the museum's mission to provide beauty, its significant contributions to cultural life, its record of achievements, its commitment to public education, its stature as one of the region's oldest and most successful civic institutions, the museum puts into action the ideals of City Beautiful.
Rebecca Massie Lane is director of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.
Want to know more?
A helpful chronology of City Park can be found on the City of Hagerstown's website at www.hagerstownmd.org/parks_rec/citypark.asp
A brief biography of George Burnap is available at the Cultural Landscape Foundation website: http://tclf.org/content/george-burnap
Copyright © 2013, Herald Mail