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'Collector's gene' yields a trove of Americana Electra Webb made Shelburne Museum her monument

Email|Print| Text size + By Sonja Hakala
Globe Correspondent / September 12, 2004

SHELBURNE, Vt. -- It all started with a diminutive lady named Mary O'Connor. There she stood, all 5 feet of her, minding her own business in front of a tobacco shop in Stamford, Conn., when a sharp-eyed young woman named Electra bought her for $15. That was in 1907.

Nowadays, Mary could fetch up to $10,000, and probably more given her status as the very first piece in the vast collection of Americana that became the Shelburne Museum.

It's hard to believe now, given the insatiable thirst for American antiques, folk art, quilts, and old advertising paraphernalia, that not too long ago, no one was interested in ''that old stuff." No one, that is, except Electra Havemeyer Webb and a few friends.

Electra Havemeyer (1889-1960) was the daughter of Henry Osborne Havemeyer, a sugar magnate and art collector, and his wife, Louisine Elder Havemeyer, a connoisseur of Impressionist art, who lived in New York. She married James Watson Webb, whose parents, William Seward Webb and Lila Vanderbilt Webb, founded Shelburne Farms in 1886 (see Checking In, Page M15). She could have collected anything from Rembrandts to large diamonds, but Electra loved what she saw around her, the beautiful and utilitarian objects of the fading 19th century into which she was born.

She wanted to save them for others to see and appreciate. Webb's passion and her vast collections are on full and vibrant display in 39 buildings and one steamboat all arranged and displayed across a magnificent sweep of gardens and lawns in western Vermont. The Shelburne is a museum like no other. Wide gravel paths encourage slow strolls from a display of more than 200 elegant horse-drawn carriages to a collection of more than 400 dolls and furnished dollhouses and on to the polished wooden fixtures of the steamboat Ticonderoga, one of the last paddle-wheelers to ply the waters of Lake Champlain.

Remember the geometric tiled floors of the 1950s, early televisions with their small screens, and refrigerators with doors that latched with pull-down handles? Last year, the Shelburne opened its 1950 House on an abutting property originally purchased to house the summer staff. The house looked as though it had been preserved in a time warp; they thought it would make an interesting but temporary addition to the museum. After the house was cleaned and furnished, the public was invited in to enjoy this trip back to ''Leave It to Beaver" land, and it was an immediate hit. In fact, the public demand to keep it open prompted the museum to find other places for the staff to live. The 1950 House is now a permanent part of the Shelburne map.

No matter what your taste in Americana, you will find it at this museum. There are hats, hatboxes, fragrance bottles, antique woodworking tools, cast-iron toys, weather vanes, a lighthouse that once stood on a reef in Lake Champlain, a round barn, early American paintings, and a hand-carved circus complete with elephants, lion tamer, trapeze artists, clowns, and a brass band.

Do you like stencils? There's a house devoted to the preservation of 18th- and 19th-century stencils that will make you dizzy. There's a train station, a locomotive, and an impressive private car from the days when no one had ever heard of an automobile. There's a carousel where children can twirl about on hand-carved stallions from the 1920s. There are gardens devoted to herbs, others to crops typical of 1790s Vermont: heirloom vegetables and flowers. In May, hundreds of lilacs on the 45-acre site fill the air with their heady scent and the museum sponsors tours and gardening talks.

The Shelburne is renowned for its quilt collection. This season, they have an exhibit called the ''Art of the Needle," 100 masterpiece quilts from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of Electra Webb's fascination with these bed coverings, the Shelburne was the first museum to treat quilts as art objects. This show, on display in several locations about the grounds, features album quilts created from individually appliqued blocks, crazy quilts, all-white quilts popular in the 19th century when manufactured cloth became available, and stunning hexagonal pieced quilts from the 1700s.

Electra was not the only collector in her family. In fact, the ''collector's gene" was passed along to her from her mother, Louisine Havemeyer. While the daughter's taste ran to Staffordshire teapots, glass witch balls, and automatons, the mother concentrated her efforts on contemporary French art. It just so happens that Havemeyer's contemporaries included people such as painters Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas. When she died, most of these Impressionist works were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Some, however, were given to her children. During her lifetime, Webb chose to display her inheritance on the walls of the Webbs' Park Avenue apartment. When she died, her children moved large parts of this apartment and its artwork to the Shelburne, making the museum the repository of several arresting European works as well as of those by noted American painters.

This year, the museum started giving guided tours of the house where Electra and James Webb lived. The Brick House is about two miles from the museum, and in it visitors have an opportunity to see how Electra experimented with her ideas for a museum and exhibitions long before the Shelburne was founded in 1947. Her beloved Staffordshire teapots line the tops of the bookcases in her office. Some of the lampshades were made from painted hatboxes; their bases are butter churns. One upstairs hallway is lined with old county maps of Vermont, each one varnished carefully to the wall. The walls and ceiling of one bedroom are covered by textiles in the form of a quilt.

And at the foot of a staircase stands Mary O'Connor, the 19th-century cigar store figure that started it all.

Sonja Hakala is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont.

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