Saturday, May 1, 2010
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.