Monday Miscellany: architecture & art in unexpected places (with a little history on the side!)

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Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberllin College, Oberlin, Ohio. Cass Gilbert, a leading American architect, designed the gorgeous Renaissance style building in 1917.

A few years ago, whenever I took even very short road trips, I began to make a point of checking out whatever art museum, historical house or major monument happened to be in my vicinity.  I can’t tell you how much fun it is to do this — it’s like a treasure hunt, with something gorgeous to look at or a fascinating bit of history to learn being the treasure.  And — it’s easy to do!  Going to see the relatives for Christmas and driving through Florida?  Don’t miss the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum at Winter Park, which has the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass in the WORLD! (and there’s a great Middle Eastern restaurant a block away, where you can have lunch afterwards!)  Traveling to or near Pittsburgh?  You owe it to yourself to detour for at least a few hours to the Carnegie Museum of Art, whose collection includes paintings by James Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer.  Did you know that the great Impressionist painter Paul Degas had family connections in New Orleans?  If you’re lucky enough to visit that charming city, take a break from the French Quarter and visit the city’s art museum, located in the middle of a vast urban park (bigger than Central Park in NYC), which includes among its holdings Degas’ portrait of his sister-in-law, painted during his 1872 visit to the city.  Do you find yourself near Montgomery, Alabama?  Don’t miss the chance to visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Center and accompanying monument, which was designed by Maya Lin (perhaps better known for her Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.) and lists the names of those murdered in the struggle for equality.

It’s easy to forget that the smaller museums often provide a wonderful experience that larger collections often do not: they allow you to view an entire collection in a reasonable amount of time without being overwhelmed by physical or mental fatigue, they frequently have overlooked gems and/or reflect their founders’ personality in interesting ways, and they are often located in wonderful buildings that are worth seeing just for themselves, regardless of the art they contain (check out, for example, the beautiful Palladian building housing St. Petersburg, Florida’s Museum of Fine Arts, located adjacent to Tampa Bay).  Google, as always, is helpful in locating these treasures or, for the more traditionally minded, guides are available; here are two good ones that I’ve used fairly often:

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Last week I was very excited to add a new gem to “my collection” of small art museums when I visited Oberlin, Ohio.  Unlike my previous treasure hunts, in which the museum was an incidental discovery on my way to somewhere else, this time around the museum itself was a destination.  As I have no doubt mentioned at least several million times over the brief life of this blog, I’m currently spending a lot of time, not to mention energy,  in researching (and hopefully writing — that comes next!) a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, one of those (very) rare female artists who lived and worked in 16th century Italy and Spain.  As I’ve been able to discover only a few of Sofonisba’s paintings in the United States, you can imagine my excitement in February when I discovered that Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum has one!  Last weekend I was finally able to see it for myself and it did not disappoint:

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Sofonisba Anguissola’s Double Portrait of a Boy and Girl, most probably siblings, from the wealthy Attavanti Family of Florence.  Sofonisba painted this portrait around 1580, using the relatively uncommon tondo or round format.

Aside from Sofonisba’s painting, the museum has a small but wonderful collection of ancient, Asian and European art.  The latter includes works by  Cezanne, Monet (two paintings), Rubens, Jan Steen, Chagall, Matisse, Modigliani, Courbet and more!  Admission is free, the staff is friendly and the interior of the building is as gorgeous as the exterior.  Moreover, although the museum is clearly well-attended, there’s space and quiet to enjoy the art even on a relatively busy Saturday afternoon.  Believe me, dear readers, it doesn’t get much better than this:

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The Allen Memorial Museum’s main rotunda. The individual galleries open from this space and there’s more space for rotating exhibits upstairs (behind the square windows over the arches).
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The Allen Museum’s wonderful ceiling and chandelier.  You can also catch a glimpse of the upstairs exhibitions through the square windows on either side of the circular chandelier.

When you’ve finished with the museum (or before, preferences vary!) you can spend a pleasant few hours wandering around Oberlin, which is a great little college town with some remarkable attributes.  Oberlin was founded in the 1830s by a couple of visionaries who combined spiritual aspirations and high ideals with ascetic notions about work and lifestyle (the founding “covenant” of “Oberlin Colony” expressly forbade its residents to indulge in alcohol or a rich diet!)  The idealism bore fruit in the 1850s, when Oberlin was known as a hotbed of the radical abolitionist movement.  It was also a key juncture on the underground railroad, that network of secret routes and safe houses operated by abolitionists and their allies who (at great risk to themselves) smuggled desperate fugitives escaping from the slave states to the north and freedom.  Did you know that Oberlin College (then known as the Oberlin Collegiate Institute) admitted African American students from its beginnings in the 1830s and allowed women to matriculate as “regular” students as early as 1837?

 

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A popular and well written history recounting an episode in 1858, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, when the residents of Oberlin defied the Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law requiring them to return escapees to bondage in the slave states.
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Colson Whitehead’s novel won both the Pulitzer and National Book Awards and was nominated for Britain’s Man Booker Prize.  Drawing on magical realism, Colson depicted the underground railroad as a literal physical structure used by escaping slaves.  Despite the fantasy aspects, Whitehead’s depiction of slavery’s horrors was, alas, all too real.

Another thing that makes a morning wandering around Oberlin so enjoyable is that the college itself is almost an outdoor architectural museum, containing as it does some remarkable examples of late 19th and early 20th century buildings designed by the leading architects of their time.

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Baldwin Cottage, designed by Weary and Kramer. Probably not everybody’s idea of a “cottage” . . . .

 

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Finney Chapel, also designed by Gilbert and located on Professor Street — a perfect address for a college campus!

 

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Bosworth Hall, designed by Cass Gilbert

Oberlin’s architectural jewels extend from high Victorian structures to an early Frank Lloyd Wright house; the latter, at one time a private residence, is now part of the Allen Memorial Museum.

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One of noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s rare Usonian houses, a residential design he developed in the 1930s.

Finally, Oberlin has many of the best features of a traditional college town:

A highly individual bookstore (actually, I saw two.  Oberlin Books, however, seems more oriented towards textbooks) ….

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A wonderful bookstore, full of charm and character; so different from those faceless mall-type stores or online offerings.  Although mainly specializing in second-hand books of all types, it also offers prints, paintings and interesting “objects,” utilitarian and otherwise!

Some interesting (albeit limited) retail shopping ….

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Bead Paradise — wonderful selection AND it has more than beads!

… and FOOD!  Oberlin has several interesting eateries; in my limited amount of time I had to limit myself to only two …..

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True to its name, Aladdin serves fabulous Middle Eastern food!

 

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I wasn’t able to hang around for dinner or lunch, but the breakfast was great! Local produce, with lots of vegetarian and vegan options.

 

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Saturday morning BEFORE the rush. An hour later and the place was packed!

In short, if you’re ever close to northern Ohio (Cleveland is the region’s “big” city) don’t pass up a chance to visit Oberlin!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Monday Miscellany: architecture & art in unexpected places (with a little history on the side!)

  1. You are living quite a wonderful life!

    Impressed to read this,

    a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, one of those (very) rare female artists who lived and worked in 16th century Italy and Spain.  

    Agree with your comment on small museums. And great arquitecture. (I have the underground book but have not read it).

    Like

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