COS COB, CONN. – From 1890 to 1920, the Holley House, now Bush-Holley Historic Site, was the center of the Cos Cob art colony. The boarding house run by the Holleys played a major role in the development of American Impressionism. Impressionist artists would stay with the Holleys and gather in the evening for lively discussions on art and society. The Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich has just opened four newly refurbished art colony period rooms to the public.
Given the interest aroused by these rooms, the Historical Society has extended the exhibition, “The Cos Cob Art Colony at Bush-Holley Historic Site,” until December 30. The exhibition tells the story of the Cos Cob art colony through photographs, documents and ephemera.
“Our goal is to refurnish the rooms as they were and to create the impression that the rooms are still in use by the artists and writers who stayed at the Holley House,” says curator Karen White. “In the dining room, for instance, we set the table so one has the sense that any minute the artists and journalists will come in to eat and artists John Twachtman and journalist Lincoln Steffens will begin one of their staged arguments to enhance the dinner conversation.”
The art colony house tour includes the front hall, dining room, north bedroom where Childe Hassam stayed and painted, Elmer MacRae’s studio and the upper and lower porches. The house is open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 4 pm.
“Immediately on entering the front hall, one can sense the eclectic style of the boarding house. The furnishings reflect the Holleys’ interest in a variety of decorative styles and in juxtaposing elements of the past with the present. A Bohemian aesthetic is created through the mixture of Colonial and Victorian furnishings.
We based the look of the hall primarily on a photograph from the period. We also used Childe Hassam’s painting, “Clarissa,” 1912, now hanging above the bookcase shown in the painting, and his etching, “The Dutch Door,” 1915. But we had to be careful not to rely too much on the art works since often an artist would take liberties with the appearance of a room to stage the effect he wanted,” explains White.
It was a time of change. The artists enjoyed comparing the old and the new. The Victorian furnishings in the entrance hall, such as the rococo style sofa and kerosene lamp, highlighted the latest advances in industry and in the production of manufactured goods. In contrast, the Eighteenth Century drop leaf table, similar to that shown in Hassam’s etching, reference the Colonial past that fascinated the artists and recalled objects that were hand crafted in the home.
The front hall includes the original bookcase shown in Hassam’s “Clarissa.” The kerosene lamp, made in the 1880s in Bridgeport, was typical of the lighting of the period, but is now converted to electricity for the convenience of the visitors. The striped, woven stair runner is new but similar to the design shown in a photo and in colors typical of the period.
The dining room was the center of art colony life. Josephine Holley and her daughter, Constant, ran the boarding house. They considered their boarders “paying guests.” To run a successful boarding house required a tremendous amount of organization and interpersonal skills, and the Holleys’ ability to create a family atmosphere was a major reason for the success of the art colony.
In 1902, Constant Holley MacRae wrote to her mother, Josephine Holley, “I tell you what, there is a lot to do, but just keep their bellies full and their tongues wagging and you’re alright. Everyone is happy and thinks he is having a good time.”
The table is laid and the food is ready for the guests. “The meal in progress is typical of what would have been served based on the Holleys’ letters and grocery receipts,” said Patricia Brunetto, site manager. “The Holleys grew their own vegetables and canned their own fruit and these would have been plentiful during the summer months.”
According to one art colony era visitor the Holleys were “charming, cultivated people [whose] good taste is apparent everywhere.”…The dining room is set with old silver and quaint blue china.” The blue English transfer-printed earthenware, circa 1860-1870, and Whittier pattern Tiffany silver plate flatware, 1890s, belonged to the Holleys.
In the recreated dining room one of the dining tables and three of the dozen chairs on display belonged to the Holleys. All the chairs are Eighteenth Century and similar in the variety of their designs to those shown in a photograph of the period. The kerosene lamp and the clock on the wall belonged to the Holleys. The Eighteenth Century desk is similar to the one shown in Hassam’s, “The Writing Desk,” 1915, an etching which shows Mrs Hassam at the Holley House. The window shown in the background of this etching was replaced by the existing china cabinet in the early 1900s. The silver on the sideboard is Nineteenth Century from the historical society’s collection.
The north bedroom was considered the “best” bedroom. Karen White explained, “In furnishing this room, we tried to show it as less of an artist’s studio and more like a bedroom. This room is more refined than the studio upstairs. As a successful artist, Childe Hassam could have afforded to stay anywhere but chose to stay at the center of the Cos Cob art colony.”
We know from the letters of Constant Holley MacRae that Childe Hassam and his wife Maude used this room. Constant writes, “The Hassams are settled in the big room downstairs…Mrs Hassam says they always sleep together in cold weather – so they just have the big bed.” The bed is a Victorian spool-turned bed from the historical society’s collection.
The Federal style mantel in this room attracted Hassam and is featured in many of his artworks such as the etchings, “The White Kimono” and “The White Mantel,” both done in 1915. The Eighteenth Century Windsor armchair and wash stand are original to the Holley household as is the 1916 gold colored Volkmar vase on the mantel. Constant Holley referred to this piece as her “favrile vase.” The chest of drawers, mirror and two banister back chairs are Eighteenth Century from the historical society’s collection. The artist pallet shown belonged to Elmer MacRae. The china is Nineteenth Century.
Up the pulpit staircase is Elmer MacRae’s studio. To build his professional career, MacRae organized and hung a series of exhibitions in the Holley House from 1908 to 1911. He also became a leading figure of the American art scene when he served as treasurer for the 1913 Armory Show. The Armory Show, which introduced Modernism to the American public, was a major cultural event of the early Twentieth Century. His studio reflects the interest of the period in Japanese art and culture.
When Constant Holley MacRae, Elmer’s wife, sold the house to the historical society most of the rdf_Descriptions in this room were still in the house. These included the Federal period chest of drawers and mirror stand, the Eighteenth Century chest and chair, as well as his easel, brushes, box of pastels and pallet.
All the paintings in this room, including many of MacRae’s wife, Constant, and the folding table screen are by MacRae. The pottery is by art potter Leon Volkmar. The early Twentieth Century painted bed, bed linen and bamboo table and the Nineteenth Century stove were acquired by the Historical Society to match rdf_Descriptions shown in period photographs.
Bush-Holley Historic Site is at 39 Strickland Road. For information, 203-869-6899, extension 10 or visit www.hstg.org.