Woodmere’s Catherine M. Kuch Gallery as it appeared shortly after the death of Charles Knox Smith. (Photo courtesy of Woodmere Art Museum)

by George McNeely

This week we celebrate the unveiling of the newest outdoor sculpture at the Woodmere Art Museum: Robinson Fredenthal’s immense stainless steel geometric “White Water” of 1978. The sculpture now serves as a dazzling abstract triumphal arch on Germantown Pike at the entrance to Chestnut Hill.

This is only the most recent addition to the collection at Woodmere, which had particularly complicated early years, including legal wrangling that curiously anticipated the more recent and well publicized struggles at the Barnes Foundation.

The core of the collection was assembled by Charles Knox Smith (1845-1916). Smith grew up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, worked his way up in various businesses and wisely moved into the expanding oil business, founding his own oil brokerage firm. He later diversified into mining and politics.

He bought the existing house at Woodmere in 1898. The history of the building we see today, with its numerous expansions and renovations, is a challenge to decipher.

At that time, the house consisted of the central block, built in the 1860s in a style that mixed the Gothic Revival and Italianate. Later the large tower was added, itself a classic Italianate feature, but in this case crowned with a mansard roof in the popular French Second Empire style. The building was later updated with decorative elements in the Colonial Revival style, including the second-story bay window. Note another window sporting a broken pediment, echoing a Philadelphia Chippendale highboy.

It is assumed that Smith started seriously collecting paintings and decorative arts around the time he bought this house. As his collection grew, he added several gallery spaces to the west side. He eventually built the large two-story semi-circular gallery building to the back, reputedly designed by the noted local architect George Howe. Smith dedicated the galleries in 1914 and they were open on a limited basis to the public until shortly after his death in 1916.

Smith had a particularly complicated and sad relationship with his sons, who were born of Smith’s two wives. On his death, he curiously stipulated that his second wife and the son by his first wife both had life rights to the house and its contents. When that son finally died without children in 1936, under the terms of Smith’s will the house was to be “converted into a public museum and art gallery … for the free use, benefit and enlightenment of the public.” To support the proposed museum, Smith had earlier bequeathed $200,000.

As there were no heirs, decisions about the founding of the museum were taken by the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court, which in 1937 assembled representatives of the estate; his widow; the Presbyterian Church, the residual beneficiary of Smith’s will, and others. The subsequent legal proceedings were carefully chronicled in Michael Dubrow’s “Woodmere Art Gallery: the First Fifty Years” (1990).

Robinson Fredenthal’s “White Water” sculpture on the front lawn of the Woodmere. (Photo courtesy of Woodmere Art Museum)

Smith’s will had indicated that the presidents of the following organizations should be ex-officio board members: the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Fairmount Park Art Association, and the Art Club of Philadelphia. Curiously the Philadelphia Museum of Art was not included, but it had not yet moved into its current building. So the Court sought the input of representatives of these and other organizations, including the Chestnut Hill Art Center and the Art League of Germantown.

The assembled experts wrestled with a number of questions. What is the significance of Smith’s collection? Is the endowment large enough to support the proposed museum? Should the museum stay in its current location or consider others? What other services should the museum offer in its effort to engage the public? These questions anticipate those that arose decades later at the Barnes Foundation, as its original funding from Dr. Barnes proved inadequate and its original location in Merion proved challenging.

As might be expected, the experts offered differing responses to those questions and reflected the particular interests of the organization each represented. Some believed that the museum should remain in Chestnut Hill to benefit area residents and that the collection would be more appealing seen on its own. Others suggested that the collection should be donated to a larger organization that could offer broader visibility and the range of support services required to run a museum. But all agreed that the funds stipulated in Smith’s will were insufficient to run a museum in the existing building, and most encouraged the Court to transfer additional funds from those that were to go to the Presbyterian Church.

We grapple with similar issues today as arts organizations struggle with changing times. Can the intentions of original donors later hamper such organizations from responding to evolving needs and tastes? Are the initial endowments sufficient to maintain operations many years later? Do the original locations remain appropriate as land use patterns change? What are the comparative advantages of smaller focused museums versus larger more comprehensive ones? Is public access easier in central or more regional locations? Can such smaller institutions remain independent given the fierce competition for funders?

Those assembled experts also grappled with the significance of Smith’s collection, which he had assembled over several decades with the advice or example of a number of other collectors. It both reflected Smith’s particular interests and also represented typical haute bourgeois taste of the period and region. By 1937, as the art world in Philadelphia was shifting its focus to Impressionism and early Modern art, Smith’s more academic 19th-century taste seemed dated. But we all know that types of art go in and out of fashion. Time has proved that Smith’s collection includes both a number of important paintings and is also of interest exactly because it is an unusual surviving ensemble of works collected by a self-made Philadelphia businessman in the late 19th century.

In the end, the Court decided that the best plan would be for the museum to remain in its current building and benefit from the efforts of both the Chestnut Hill Art Center and the Art League of Germantown. It declined the offer from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to incorporate Smith’s collection into its own. The Presbyterian Church agreed to allocate modest funding to prepare the building for its new function. So, after those years of legal wrangling, the new museum was inaugurated in 1940.

Almost a century later, the Woodmere is being re-energized by its current director, William Valerio, who is carrying forward Smith’s vision in new and interesting directions. But that will be for another column.

Chestnut Hill resident George McNeely is an architectural historian, lecturer, editor, writer and charity auctioneer.