Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: The Currier Gallery of Art opens its doors
In 1926 two local women were sent on a mission. Maud Briggs Knowlton and Penelope “Nellie” W. Snow, recently appointed trustees of the Currier Gallery of Art, were tasked with researching different types of art museum buildings to see how they functioned.
They embarked on a cross-country trip where they visited a wide range of museums, examining them from a critical perspective. Maud and Nellie were well-suited for the job. Maud was an accomplished artist and craftswoman with an eye for collecting art and antiques, and Nellie also had a deep interest in the arts. Plus, as the late Hannah Currier's niece and her long-time companion, Nellie was in tune with what her aunt would have wanted for the new structure.
The two women came back with valuable recommendations for the new Currier Gallery of Art that were useful both to the trustees and to architect Edward L. Tilton.
Edward Tilton was educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris where he had been thoroughly schooled in classicism. His design for the new museum, like his design for the Carpenter Memorial Library, was inspired by the grand buildings of the Italian Renaissance.
The trustees approved Tilton's final sketches, and in March 1927 contractor L. H. Shattuck Inc. of Manchester tore down the Currier mansion and began constructing the museum building. The structure was built on a solid granite base, and was faced with Kentucky limestone.
It contained a two-story indoor courtyard, with classical columns and arches, lit with natural light from an atrium. The exhibition spaces were laid out to suit modern requirements for space and lighting.
Tilton included a charming touch by installing working fireplaces in four of the galleries. He hired Italian-American artist Salvatore Lascari who decorated the courtyard, including creating a black and white marble mosaic floor that depicted the signs of the zodiac. Lascari would also design a brilliantly colored mosaic fašade for the main entrance that would be installed the year after the museum opened.
The completion of the new museum was celebrated with a grand reception on the evening of Oct. 9, 1929. An estimated 1,400 invited guests crowded the galleries including artists, local dignitaries, and art critics from Boston and New York. The museum's small art collection, that it had recently acquired, was on display, as well as furniture and artwork loaned by Manchester families, and contemporary paintings and sculpture from the Grand Central Art Galleries of New York.
A gallery was set up as a memorial to Moody and Hannah Currier. On display were portraits of the Curriers, and selections of their furniture and family memorabilia. Another room was arranged as a children's gallery, with antique dolls and doll furniture on view.
As a chamber music ensemble played in the background, the Currier's trustees and the museum's new director, Maud Briggs Knowlton, greeted the excited visitors. One of the guests was William H. Hekking, a museum director from Buffalo, New York. He commented in the Manchester Union newspaper, “The building…is an asset to your city. It furnishes something to the emotional side of life, catering to the eye as music does to the ear…” He recommended that local residents visit it often, to study and meditate in the galleries, and “…to be tolerant of the pictures they did not understand and curious to find out more about them.”
In the years that followed the landscape in front of the Currier Gallery of Art was developed into a New England version of a Renaissance garden, complete with a reflecting pool, fountain, terraces and both native and exotic trees. The building was enlarged in 1982 with the addition of two pavilions on its north side to accommodate more exhibit and art storage space.
The Currier changed its name to the Currier Museum of Art in 2002 to better reflect its mission, and in 2008 the museum completed a major expansion that added 33,000 square feet of space. Today Lascari's gorgeous entryway mosaics are a focal point of the museum's Winter Garden, which serves as a cafÚ and event space.
We are grateful for Moody and Hannah Currier's generous legacy — our beloved Currier Museum of Art!
Next week: The tale of the Mammoth Road.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at email@example.com