Two years ago in this space, I took a look at the ways that museums and other cultural institutions were coping with the Covid- 19 pandemic. At the time of writing, the coronavirus was still in full force. Vaccines were not yet available. Many museums were closed, as they had been for months, but all of them were desperate for the income that ticket sales bring and a few places had opened at restricted capacity, with requirements for face masks and social distancing and other measures. The results were better for some museums than others.
Another place I checked on was Andalusia, a historic estate north of Philadelphia on the Delaware River that is the ancestral seat of the Biddle family. Andalusia’s biggest annual fundraising event is an autumn fete called “Cabaret by the River,” a black-tie affair that features cocktails, dinner, and top-flight entertainment. The 2020 edition was, alas, held virtually. Thanks to the savings on catering and other trimmings, the evening was a financial success, but like all virtual activities it rang a bit hollow. This year things were pretty much back to normal. The event was held live and in-person, and thanks to the great generosity of our columnists Pippa Biddle and Benjamin Davidson and Pippa’s father, Edward Biddle, I was able to attend. I enjoyed myself immensely.
The remnants of Hurricane Ian threatened to wash out the event, but the worst of the weather held off. In the misty gloaming, Andalusia looked magnificent. The chief feature of the main house is a massive neoclassical portico facing the river, an addition commissioned by Nicholas Biddle in 1833 as part of a renovation overseen by Thomas Ustick Walter, the architect best known for designing the dome of the US Capitol. There was something almost cinematic about the scene, as the crowd in tuxedos and formal dresses stood chatting and sipping drinks in the lee of the huge Doric columns.
Dinner was held in a tent adjacent to the mansion, and was followed by a performance by John Pizzarelli and his trio. The son of the late, legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and a celebrated guitarist in his own right, he entertained the audience with cabaret standards old and new, interspersed with stories about his father and encounters with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Paul McCartney. Great fun.
The evening served as a valedictory for Connie Griffith Houchins, Andalusia’s longtime director, who is stepping back to focus on archival research, and a coming-out party for John Vick, who came aboard earlier this year as director of collections, interpretation, and engagement. The triple-barreled title is appropriate for Vick, who arrived at Andalusia after thirteen years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he worked in a variety of roles, both curatorial and in the executive offices.
Vick is thirty-nine years old (but looks even younger) and it gave me a cheering sense of optimism to see him take the reins. Andalusia will put a lot on his plate: preservation work on the mansion, both inside and out; managing, adding to, and displaying its collections of historic fine and decorative artworks; maintaining extensive gardens and an arboretum.
In an email, I asked Vick what attracted him to the job. “I live with my wife, a photographer, and our daughter in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. I think a lot of what draws me to Andalusia is the same thing that makes me want to live in an old Philadelphia rowhome,” he wrote back. “There’s history imbedded in every material and every surface of Andalusia, even in the soil, the gardens, and the trees. That sense of time and legacy can provide perspective on life today—how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same. It also acts as a rich repository for imagining or learning about the lives of the people who lived before us, doing so through beautiful and unique objects and works of art, as well as in the more visceral experiences of walking through a house or wandering a property.”
Well said, and well done, Andalusia.