Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Hannah Currier leaves a legacy of art and culture for Manchester
Hannah Currier was a popular first lady during Moody Currier's gubernatorial administration in 1885-1886. It was written of her, 'She charmed official New Hampshire by her accomplishments and her genial, cultured entertainment added in no little degree to the dignity and popularity of the Governor's administration.' The couple shared a quiet existence, enjoying their large brick mansion, their gardens, their books and the company of their friends. Their property, located at the current site of the Currier Museum of Art, took up the entire city block. There were at least 13 other large homes in the neighborhood that were situated in the same manner. This neighborhood of wealth and privilege came about due to a plan of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. The city blocks were sold as one unit with the deed restriction that only one house could be built on each lot. In this way, the wealthy professionals of Manchester could live together in semi-seclusion, but still be close enough to their places of business for easy travel.
Moody and Hannah shared a love of learning, and a deep appreciation of literature and the arts. When he spoke at the Dartmouth College commencement in 1885, fifty-one years after graduating from that institution, Moody expressed, 'The arts and sciences are progressing with lightning speed; new discoveries are at hand; light is breaking upon the world; the human spirit is grasping at the infinite...' Moody's interest in the fine arts was encouraged through his friendship with Henry Herrick, a noted watercolorist and luminary in Manchester social circles. Moody served as trustee of the Manchester Institute of Arts and Sciences (now the New Hampshire Institute of Art) and as president of the Manchester Art Association.
After Moody's death in 1898, Hannah devoted her life to maintaining the Currier legacy. She arranged for a large granite obelisk to be erected at Moody Currier's gravesite, on a hill at the west end of the Valley Cemetery, and she presented the city with a beautiful wrought iron gate at the Chestnut Street entrance of the cemetery in his honor. She also arranged for the publication of a book containing selections of Moody's state papers and his poetry.
Hannah shared her late husband's desire that the estate be used to create a museum of art that would be a 'benevolent and public institution.' She managed the Currier fortune wisely so that sufficient funds would be available to establish the museum. In 1905, when Hannah was 80 years she announced her plans to the public. A local newspaper writer prophesied, 'With this large sum of money to be expended, it is expected that the gallery will be the finest in New England and will compare favorably with the most extensive and elaborate in the United States.' Hannah died in 1915, leaving her real estate and $900,000 for the founding of the new museum. The Currier Gallery of Art was chartered by the New Hampshire Legislature in 1919.
The trustees decided that the Currier mansion would be demolished to make way for the museum building. They did not wish to rush into the business of creating the new institution, so they took great care in researching and interviewing potential architects. They settled on R. Clipston Sturgis of Boston, whose design for the building resembled a large brick colonial house, complete with a large 18th-Century style drawing room, decorated with furniture from that period. Sturgis was in the process of seeking construction bids in 1925, when he was suddenly fired. The reason for this action was not recorded, so we are left to speculate.
Later that year the trustees hired prominent architect Edward L. Tilton of New York to develop a new design. It is likely that trustee Frank P. Carpenter influenced this decision, as Tilton had designed the magnificent Carpenter Memorial Library building in 1914, which Carpenter had donated to the city in memory of his late wife Elenora Blood Carpenter. Frank Carpenter took the helm as the building committee chairman, handling the details of the contract with Tilton. Carpenter had a deep appreciation of fine architecture, so he was able to act as an effective go-between in communications between the architect and the trustees.
Next week: Opening night at the new Currier Gallery of Art, October 1929.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org