Moving Forward at Bayou Bend

Michael Kammen

Michael Kammen Furniture & Decorative Arts

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2010.

Houston has been called a wholesale city—a great place to do business and buy big. It feels as though it is lounging flat out, like some huge deflated blimp. The very notion of commercial/residential zoning remained problematic until rather recently, and less than a generation ago smallish escort service motels sat cheek-by-jowl near great art museums. Considering that it is the fourth largest city in the United States, Houston’s government seems minimal. The city is an intensely individualistic place where the national media seem to have relatively little impact.

Although history is not highly visible there—no Alamo, for instance—Houstonians take pride in the notion that traditional Texan values germinated along the eastern seaboard during the Revolutionary era, migrated to the independent Republic of Texas in 1836, and then settled in. James Stephen Hogg (1851–1906), born on a farm called Mountain Home, near Rusk, Texas, became the first native-born governor of the state in 1891.

He memorialized his birthplace in a tribute to “Home! The Center of Civilization: The pivot of constitutional government: The ark of safety to happiness, virtue and Christianity: Home!”1

Few people endorsed that sentiment with greater assurance than his two oldest children, Ima (1882–1975) and her brother Will (1875–1930). They began collecting english art and antiques almost a century ago, sustained by revenue from real estate left by their father. (A decade later, oil was discovered on that land. Hence Texaco.) Shortly after World War I, Will and Ima shifted their focus to early American material culture and the decorative arts. The role that craft and beauty played during the Revolutionary era impressed them ever more. But equally significant, Miss Hogg said that from the very beginning of her collecting in 1920 she had “an unaccountable compulsion to make an American collection for some Texas museum,”and to link Texas to the “heart of an American heritage which unites us.”2

The siblings wanted to trace an aesthetic evolution through the entire colonial period and beyond. “There’s something peculiarly American about the work englishmen did when they got here,” Miss Hogg noted in 1966. “American furniture is not as pretentious; the proportions, carving and veneering are more pleasing to the eye.…American portrait painters painted for character.”3 She viewed her collection as a “bridge to the past,” and in 1957 she made it a gift to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. any readers of this magazine are familiar with the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and have very likely been there—virtually if not actually. now there are multiple reasons to return. Prior to her death in 1975, Miss Hogg envisioned and expressed the wish for a visitors’ and education center, a wish that is just now being realized because of a highly successful $25 million campaign launched three years ago. Designed by Houston architect Leslie K. elkins, the eighteen-thousand-squarefoot Lora Jean Kilroy Visitor and education Center (named for the lead benefactor of the project and museum trustee) is linked literally and metaphorically to the museum by a bridge that transports visitors to a different world and time on the opposite side of Buffalo Bayou.

The effect of liberating nearly a thousand square feet in the museum has meant that many more pieces of diverse kinds can be displayed. Well before her death Ima Hogg had begun broadening her extraordinary collection beyond her initial focus on American furniture. She understood that for historical context there would have to be more silver and base metals, ceramics, glass, works on paper, and more period paintings.

In 1973 she extended an invitation to the Bayou Bend Advisory Committee, the museum’s governing board, to “dream with me.”4 And so they did. The extensive ensemble that she bequeathed has been enhanced repeatedly in the past thirty-five years with gifts, bequests, and astute purchases, primarily by David B. Warren (the former director and now Founding Director emeritus) and by his successor as curator, Michael K. Brown, in consultation with others. When I first met Brown at Bayou Bend in 1982, he was recently arrived from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (he had trained at Winterthur). He has now been there for nearly three decades, and his connoisseurship only gets keener and keener.

What should visitors, old and new, anticipate? quite a lot, based upon serious scholarship that has emerged during the past generation, an increasing degree of attention to authentication, and new “stuff” that is actually rather old, of course, along with some “stuff” that there had not been room to display until now. The museum’s trustees and staff have also used this occasion to revisit the collection and the installations. Rooms previously used for offices (and other purposes) have been liberated, and though the concepts for the room settings are principally stylistic, elsewhere groups of objects have been assembled that enable visitors to explore such diverse topics as the China trade, the role of women in society, and even personal hygiene. Authentication has never been lacking at Bayou Bend, but it has now been deepened wherever possible. erudition lives here in a way that is interesting and enjoyable.

Let’s begin on the second floor where several of the rooms the McIntire Bedroom, Music Room,andFederalParloramong them) have been refined by the introduction of reproduction wallpaper and carpeting to produce a more historically accurateinstallation.Inthefresh and “corrected” presentation of the Federal Parlor (Fig. 7), once Will’s room, but so named by Miss Hogg, curatorial curiosity and ample patience have paid off. When the mantel with its elegant relief figures was pried away from the wall and excess paint stripped off, the incised signature of Philadelphian Robert Wellford stunningly appeared. Conservator Jane Gillies also discovered that the plinths or bases of the mantel had originally been painted reddish-brown (perhaps to look like mahogany— even though brush strokes were quite clearly visible). nothing covert, just clever.Above the mantel there is now Charles Willson Peale’s unusual (for him) Landscape Looking Toward Sellers Hall from Mill Bank of about 1818. (Ima Hogg was not proprietary and envisioned the collection’s refinement through the generosity of others, such as Mrs. James W. Glanville who donated this important work in 1998.) It complements a diverse representation of Peale’s work elsewhere at Bayou Bend.

On the east wall, above the well-known and justly beloved tambour writing desk attributed to the Seymours (see Fig. 9), moved from the McIntire Bedroom, there is a large needlework picture of 1800–1805 of Mount Vernon, with an astonishing eagle whose three dimensional quality executed in silver threads makes it appear to soar raptor-like above the president’s home (Fig. 8). new wallpaper, border, and frieze from Adelphi Paper Hangings reproduce those from a late eighteenth-century house in Sutton, Massachusetts. All the furniture is neoclassical, of course.

The primary emphasis of the newly refurbished McIntire Bedroom—“new” between 1790 and 1820—and named for the creative Salem architect and woodcarver, is Salem furniture from a phase when that city was one of the largest in the United States, and one of the wealthiest (see Fig. 13). Thematically the room highlights the position of women in coastal new england. It now features ladies’ worktables (a fresh furniture form in that period), schoolgirl embroideries, and new wallpaper and borders (chosen in consultation with Richard nylander, curator emeritus of Historic new england, and produced by Adelphi).

The Music Room derives its stylistic interpretation from the early nineteenth-century Gibson and Davis piano and when complete will reflect that curious phase of early empire and Regency taste, thereby providing a singular period rather than two as it had previously when there were neoclassical pieces exhibited as well. Duncan Phyfe–type card tables, chairs with musical instruments painted on the back (a recent purchase), Chinese export porcelain reflecting the commercial power of the China trade, and even a bamboo armchair made in China for the West will round out the furnishings. As with the other reproduction carpets introduced at Bayou Bend, the one here is by Grosvenor Wilton.

The contents of what was hitherto the Ima Hogg Memorial Room in the mansion have been relocated to the visitors’ center, and the space is now dedicated to folk art that might better be called fancy ware or rustic ware, something that had been missing in Bayou Bend’s collections (see Fig. 14). The most eye-catching piece is a Pennsylvania German cupboard with fancifully painted doors, from Berks County, 1800–1830. A new acquisition provides a novel introduction to the space: painted doors bearing the signatures of Patrick Finney andJohn Sery, most likely from an Independent Order of Odd Fellows’ Lodge in Saugerties, new York, about 1850–1860 (see Fig. 15). Depicted on the upper panels of each door are an upright tree and a felled one: Life and death, summer and winter, but above all, perhaps, aspiring to redemption rather than falling from grace. I like the doors even more than the cupboard. Together they constitute a kind of exuberant simplicity that is not so simple, if that makes any sense. here is now a Metals Study Room designed with built-in cases and drawers dedicated to silver and other metals. As with the Ceramics Study Room, visitors can now get closer to the objects and view them in better light than is possible in the period rooms. There are rare objects recently acquired thanks to a roster of generous donors as well as many that have not previously been shown. One of the highlights of a collection that spans two centuries of style and social customs is a unique set of seventy matching spoons (table-, tea-and dessert) most likely made by Joseph Loring and detailed by Paul Revere Jr. They migrated miraculously from Boston to natchez to Houston, with brief stops along the way.

I was also smitten by the extraordinary asparagus tongs from the second egyptian revival (see Fig. 12), perhaps sparked by Aida (1871). Delicate and grasping,they are strong, studied, and detailed. And do not overlook the exquisite sardine box with dolphin feet that remind one of playful gargoyles in Paris or Avignon (see Fig. 11). American sardine boxes exist elsewhere in plate, but this is the only one known in sterling.

The cultural significance of Bayou Bend is manifold. First, the sheer beauty of the objects requires no other validation. Second, the Hogg family history is fascinating because it provides a narrative of not merely civic and state pride but a story of philanthropic generosity and patronage on a grand scale: from a symphony orchestra to a child guidance center, mental health and hygiene foundation, parks, and, last but not least, the Museum of Fine Arts, of which Bayou Bend is a satellite component. ut finally, and perhaps most important, twenty-eight period and display rooms now provide a tangible connection to the American past by means of material culture from 1620 to 1876—perhaps richest and deepest for the period spanning 1730 to 1820. Rooms range from plain style Puritan to Federal luxe to extravagant yet understated Republican elegance. If that is an oxymoron, so be it. See for yourselves. Marvel at Miss Hogg’s vision. She fully expected the scope of her acquisitions to grow, and welcomed the participation of others in its evolution. She placed few restrictions on the collection because she respected curators and wanted them to have the freedom to fulfill their mission. If one can find a finer example of an object in a certain genre from a given time and place, substitute it. That is what she had been doing for decades. The process of filtration has been perpetuated: Keep only the finest examples.

She wanted her museum to be accurate and authentic. Thinking beyond the limits of her era, moreover, she hoped that through technology her “heirs and assigns” (curators, consultants, and board members) would learn things hitherto unknown about Americana. Perhaps the decade ascribed for a certain piece is wrong. It is really from the 1720s, not 1740s. Who knew? The artisan may have been well on in life and still turning pieces in the old way he had learned from his father. The aggregation lives and grows as the staff learns more.

Many years before her death Ima Hogg explained that she was attracted to early American decorative arts because of their intrinsic aesthetic value, because the objects revealed the “‘circumstances and events surrounding the lives of our Founding Fathers,’ and because she hoped to inculcate in others ‘a greater respect for the cultural life of our early American forefathers.’”5 She began by buying retail, but ended by pursuing her ambitious project wholesale. After all, she was a Houstonian.

The stewardship ghost of Miss Hogg does not exactly haunt Bayou Bend, but her generous spirit remains a powerful presence, and brother Will, who forcefully dominated the siblings until his premature death in 1930 (he never married), remains much more than a silent partner. He was the initial arbiter of taste and man of action. After his death, his single sister came into her own and blossomed. Bayou Bend has flourished ever since. Its influence on collectors of American antiques and connoisseurship has been exemplary—and growing.

1 Quoted in Kate Sayen Kirkland, The Hogg Family and Houston: Philanthropy and the Civic Ideal (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2009), p. 15.

2 Ima Hogg, “Foreword,” in David B. Warren, Bayou Bend: American Furniture, Paintings and Silver from the Bayou Bed Collection (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1975), pp. xv–xvi.

3 Quoted in Kirkland, The Hogg Family and Houston, p. 236.

4 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, archives.

5 Kirkland, The Hogg Family and Houston, p. 236.

MICHAEL KAMMEN is the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University. His books include the Pulitzer Prize–winning People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization and Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture.Gathering Texas History, Piece by Piece Bill Hill

William J. Hill, or Bill Hill as he prefers to be called, began his long and com mitted romance with Texas furniture as a cash strapped student at the Univer sity of Texas during the late 1950s. He was browsing in a resale shop on Red River Street near downtown Austin when he saw a simple pine bedside table that he could not do without. “I bought it then because it was cheap,” he said. “But it was really a great table.”

There was something appealing to Hill about the simple lines and fine quality of that century old handcrafted nightstand, which still holds a place of honor in his office in Houston’s mu seum district. He had grown up in Houston, but like most Texans at the time, he had not realized that the state had developed a high level of local ar tisanship that peaked by 1880, before railroads began bringing in imports from other parts of the country. even the legendary Ima Hogg, who was busy turning her home at Bayou Bend into one of the country’s great collections of American furniture, came late to hunt ing the treasures to be found hidden away in old houses scattered around certain parts of the state. After Hill went into the oil business, he began collect ing silver and other decorative arts, but he found himself particularly drawn to the furniture made in the area of Texas known as the German Belt, stretching north and west of San Antonio, taking in particularly the towns of Castroville, Fredericksburg, and new Braunfels.

German farmers flocked to Central Texas in such numbers that by 1850 they made up the state’s largest ethnic group from europe. Their tidy farms were a far cry from the vast ranches for which the state is better known. “They had these small plots of land, sixty to a hundred acres, and that’s all they needed,” Hill says. “They had their Sunday houses in town. They had lyceums and agricultural societies. They made beer.” And as Hill discovered, their best artisans made simple but elegant furniture in the Biedermeier style they had known in europe using native nut-colored woods likecherryandwalnut found inabundance in their new countryside.

The Texas masters of Biedermeier used simple designs that depended on the selection of woods and a subtle handling of surfaces for their quality. They mayhavebeenlivingontheedge of Indian country, but in Hill’s view these cabinetmakers were making furniture that rivaled the better-known work of craftsmen in the east. “Everyone talks about Pennsylvania German,” says Hill, “but to me the best Texas furniture outshines that. It just came later.”

Hill, a tall man whose commanding presence is softened by the mischievous twinkle in his eye, likes to describe himself as a “gatherer” rather than a collector. Historian David B. Warren, the former director of Bayou Bend and the co-author of the pioneering book Texas Furniture: The Cabinetmakers and Their Work, published in 1975, describes Hill as a “bloodhound” in his ability to track down furniture of quality. “One thing leads to another,” says Hill, “and next thing you know you’re looking for the next piece.”

Once his interest was piqued, Hill began to drive around Central Texas in search of fine old Texas furniture, stopping at stone farm houses to peer in to old barns. At one oldhouse, a faded yellow structure with the porch ceiling painted blue (for fly control), he noticed a promising wooden table sitting out in front of a trailer. The owner wanted to trade his small table passed down through the generations for a new dinette set, and Hill worked out an exchange.

As Hill learned more, he zeroed in on the work of Johann Michael Jahn, who had already earned the title Tischlermeister (master table maker) back in Germany before arriving in new Braunfels in 1845. Like his fellow cabinetmakers, Jahn undertook a variety of commissions, including laying walnut and pine floors. But his forte was creating the stately Kleiderschrank, or wardrobe, which was the quintessential form for German cabinetmakers.

Meanwhile Hill had been deepening his relationship with Bayou Bend, where he had joined one of the collecting committees, and with the Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park, where he eventually became president. At the Heritage Society, a collection of restored buildings that showcase Texas history, he became so involved that his presence was like that of a benevolent uncle. “Bill deserves an enormous amount of credit in terms of helping us build and refine our Texas furniture collection,” says Executive Director Alice Collette. The society dedicated its oldest structure, called “The Old Place,” dating back to 1823, to Hill. But his presence has been felt in all the buildings, including the Duncan General Store, a replica of a store that stood in the town of egypt in the late nineteenth century. Hill added much of the store’s authentic inventory, and he is so at home there you almost expect him to step behind the counter to weigh out a helping of hard candies or measure a bolt of cloth.

For Hill it is important that the Texas pieces he has gathered be recognized not just for their aesthetic qualities but what they have to say about the way of life they represent. “Collecting is fun,” he says, “but possession is not the main thing. It’s the knowledge you get and the stories you put together.” At the Heritage Society, he has been a stickler for keeping the look of each room true to place and period, down to hanging muslin rather than silk curtains, and avoiding what he calls the “dried-flowers-in-chamber-pots” school of decorating. “I want school children to see how people lived here. It’s not new england,” he says. “There is a background and history here.”

At Bayou Bend, Hill felt that the museum “should have more of a Texas presence,” says curator Michael K. Brown. Ima Hogg had established a Texas Room, but her most intense efforts in finding Texas pieces had been directed to Winedale, the collection of historic buildings located northwest of Houston. “We’ve had the goal of making the Texas Room a great showcase of the best of Texas,” Brown says. “But without Bill’s passion and commitment, we wouldn’t be very far down that road.”

Hill’s gift to Bayou Bend in 2008 of eleven examples of rare Texas-made furniture was regarded as one of the most significant gifts to any museum that year. Among the pieces were six attributed to Jahn and his workshop, including a highly coveted wardrobe of finely polished black walnut and pine. Perhaps the only piece of Texas furniture on public display to rival the star power of the Jahn wardrobe is yet another Bill Hill acquisition, a flamboyant walnut desk made by Austin cabinetmaker Adolph Kempen that is now on loan to Bayou Bend in a prominent spot in the Texas Room. As David Warren observes, it would be difficult to ascribe a Texas provenance to such a tour de force piece except for two things: an actual label, quite rare for Texas furniture, and a marquetry star that places a Texas imprimatur on the desk. It is a marvel of Victorian eclecticism, with its overall rococo look, the Gothic motifs in its door panels, and elements of the Renaissance revival in its incised ornamental details.

The desk, which Warren describes as an “anomaly,” carries with it one of those remarkable stories that Hill likes to gather along with his pieces. Made for a charity raffle about 1875, it was inherited by a nephew of the original owner who chose it following his uncle’s death after drawing lots with other heirs for his possessions. The desk appeared in Warren’s book, and when Hill saw it, he wanted it. “I looked for that desk for thirty-five years,” he said. The desk appeared on the Antiques Roadshow in 1999, which set him hot on the trail again, and he finally tracked it down to the owner’s house in Baytown just as floodwaters from a hurricane were rising toward the doorstep.

Placing the desk on display at Bayou Bend rather than keeping it at home or in his office is typical of Hill’s eagerness to share his passion for Texas furniture. As Alice Collette observes, “Bill gets great joy in finding wonderful pieces and then placing them in an institution so the public can enjoy them.”

“For some collectors, it’s all about the chase,” Michael Brown says. “But Bill follows it through, from the chase to seeing that the object is properly preserved and recorded to making it accessible to the public and scholars and eventually identifying a public institution where it would best be placed.” Before Hill arrived, according to Brown, “the Texas Room, while possessing charm, was lacking the depth of collections and cohesiveness that characterizes the great interiors at Bayou Bend. But now, thanks to Bill’s vision and generosity the museum is able to showcase seminal examples of nineteenth-century Texas design and craftsmanship.”

CAROL FLAKE CHAPMAN is a writer based in Texas.