Saturday, May 1, 2010

Maryhill Museum

Take one wealthy road builder, one granddaughter of both Queen Victoria and the Tsar, one fabulously rich sugar baroness, one Folies-Bergeres dancer; shake together and add an impressive chateau, life-size replica of Stonehenge, French fashion mannequins, icons from Tsarist Russia, Rodin sculptures, and an assortment of peacocks. The result: one rather bizarre cultural attraction, right here in our backyard.
Maryhill Museum is located on the Washington side of the Columbia River on an arid bluff overlooking the rolling fields of Oregon. About 100 miles east of Portland, it was once described by Time Magazine as “the world’s most isolated museum.” To prove the point, a road sign a few miles east advises no gas for the next 82 miles.
How a major art facility ended up in such an odd setting is the story of one man’s vision, along with the help of a trio of extraordinary female friends. Sam Hill was a lawyer, entrepreneur, railroad executive, philanthropist, and road builder who had the dream of creating a utopian agricultural community where the “western rains meet the eastern sun of Oregon and Washington.” In 1907, he purchased 6,000 acres along the Columbia, naming the site Maryhill after his wife and daughter. Seven years later, construction began on an imposing 18th century, Flemish chateau similar in style to his Seattle mansion.
Because of the remote location and lack of a dependable irrigation system, the farming community failed and Hill’s interests took him elsewhere. During his world travels, he became friends with several fascinating women. Loie Fuller, a famous modern dancer, had connections with the Paris art scene including Auguste Rodin, and persuaded Hill to turn his unfinished mansion into an art museum.
Another friend, Queen Marie of Romania, showed her gratitude for Hill’s assistance to her country during and after World War I, by dedicating the empty museum in 1926. Her royal visit and entourage, including trunks of artwork for the new museum, created quite a stir in the national press.
After Hill’s death in 1931, it was another friend, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, who supervised the completion of the museum. The heiress of a San Francisco sugar fortune, she provided many paintings and other works of art from her personal collection. The museum opened to the public in 1940.
Today, it offers visitors an opportunity to enjoy an eclectic assortment of art objects found nowhere else. The first floor is filled with Queen Marie’s gilded furniture, throne, jewelry, family photos, and the gown she wore to the coronation of the last Russian Tsar. Another room features a small yet impressive collection of Orthodox icons, many donated by the queen.
Upstairs is an exhibit, Theatre de la Mode, a collection of 1946 haute couture fashion miniatures. In post-war Paris, supplies were so scarce the major French design houses resorted to using dolls scaled to one-third size to show off their new lines. The show traveled around to all the fashion capitals of the world and somehow ended up here in the middle of nowhere. On the bottom level is the internationally recognized Rodin collection of sculptures and watercolors. A display of more than 200 historic and unusual chess sets; large exhibit of Native American baskets, bead work, and other crafts; and memorabilia of Loie Fuller complete the collection.
Outside, the lushly landscaped grounds feature an outdoor sculpture garden with works by contemporary Northwest artists and a shady picnic area decorated with wandering peacocks. But the most eccentric of Sam Hill’s creations is about four miles east of the museum. Here, at the end of a gravel parking lot, on a bluff 600 feet above the Columbia River, is a full-scale, cement replica of Britain’s Neolithic Stonehenge. Raised as a Quaker and pacifist, Hill was deeply touched by the devastation of World War I and built this monument as a memorial to local Klickitat County soldiers killed in the war.

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