Monday, May 07, 2001

Building holds families' histories

Tafts weren't the first important residents

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Visitors to the Taft Museum of Art often want more than to view the impressive collection of oil paintings, Chinese porcelains and Italian decorative arts.

        “Everybody wants to know about the house, and that leads to (questions about) the families,” said John F. Stevenson, a retired school teacher and volunteer docent at the Pike Street museum for 12 years. “We are happy to talk about the families who lived there.”

        Indeed, a special quality of the museum is the historic building, which once was home to some of the city's most important citizens.

        The museum, which todayformally announces its first-ever renovation and expansion, opened to the public in 1932. Its history reaches back much further.

        The Federal-style building is one of the city's oldest wooden structures. It was built for banker Martin Baum in 1820, when Cincinnati had slightly more than 10,000 residents. Mr. Baum's family lived in the house only a few years; his bank foreclosed on him during a national financial panic.

        For a short time thereafter, the house was used as an academy for girls.

Longworth added on
               Nicholas Longworth, Cincinnati's first millionaire and one of the richest men in America, bought the house, then called Belmont, in 1829. He lived there until his death in 1863. Mr. Longworth made a number of significant alterations to the building, including the addition of the two side wings.

        Mr. Longworth was one of the city's earliest arts patrons. About 1850, he commissioned Robert S. Duncanson to paint eight large landscape murals on the walls of the home's main entrance and adjoining halls. Mr. Duncanson, who died in 1872, was the first African-American artist to achieve international recognition.

        The murals were badly painted over in the 1860s. They had been covered with wallpaper by the time Cincinnati industrialist David Sinton bought the property in 1871. The murals wouldn't be seen again for more than 50 years.

        Besides Mr. Sinton, the home's new residents included his daughter, Anna, and Charles Phelps Taft, who were married in the music room on Dec. 4, 1873. Anna and Charles Taft would make a profound impact not only on the Pike Street house, but on the city of Cincinnati.

President's half-brother
               Charles, a lawyer, was the older half-brother of William Howard Taft, 27th president of the United States. Charles also involved himself in politics, serving in the Ohio House and U.S. Congress. But he was best known as a newspaper publisher, having merged two papers to create the Cincinnati Times-Star in 1880.

        He and Anna devoted themselves to improving Cincinnati's cultural climate, endowing various institutions including the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

        When David Sinton died in 1900, he left the Pike Street home — and $15 million — to Anna. In the years following Mr. Sinton's death, Anna and Charles became serious art collectors, making frequent trips to New York and abroad.

        “The Tafts were very pragmatic in what they collected,” said Phillip C. Long, Taft Museum director. Hoping to inspire local artists, the Tafts focused much of their attention on landscapes and portraits by 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century European artists.

        “They collected Chinese porcelains as a way to stimu late Rookwood Pottery production,” Mr. Long said. “The Tafts would open their house to interested people on Sundays to stimulate cultural activity and be a source of inspiration.”

Murals revealed
               In 1927 the Tafts made arrangements to bequeath the home and its collections to the people of Cincinnati. They would live in the house until they died, then it would become a public museum.

        During those discussions, Anna recalled hearing her father talk about murals that had been covered by wallpaper in the entrance halls. She had never seen them.

        Charles died in 1929. Anna, in 1931. As the home was converted to a museum, the wallpaper was removed, revealing Mr. Duncanson's murals. They became a focal point of an eclectic collection.

        “It's a very personal collection,” said Louise Pritz of Hyde Park, a museum member. “One does feel that one is seeing things that were of importance to the people who lived there.”

        The museum's most popular artwork, Mr. Long said, is probably Cincinnati artist Henry Farny's “Song of the Talking Wire,” an oil painting of an American Plains Indian with his ear to a telegraph pole.

        “It has a sort of sadness to it, in that it's the end of the West as the Native Americans knew it,” Mr. Long said.

        But perhaps the most important piece in the collection, Mr. Long says, is the 13th-century ivory “Virgin and Child” from the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis in Paris.

        “The Louvre feels it's the most important Gothic sculpture in the world, period,” Mr. Long said. “It was sold during the French Revolution to finance the Louvre.”

Wide audience
               Today, the museum appeals to a wide range of patrons.

        Elise Goodman, a professor of art history at the University of Cincinnati's Raymond Walters College, has been bringing her students to the museum for years “so they can be exposed to a superb collection of 17th- and 18th-century paintings.”

        She also credits the Taft for scheduling lectures with internationally renowned art historians. The Taft reaches other audiences through programs such as its Chamber Music Series and art day camps for children.

        Beverly Pryor-Young, an account executive at radio station WCIN, hadn't been to the Taft since she was a child. She “rediscovered” it last year when the Duncanson murals were being re stored, and has become a frequent visitor.

        “I did not remember all the other exhibits that were there, like the Chinese porcelains. They are fabulous. It gave me a chance to get reattached to that.”

        Last week, students from Amity Elementary School in Deer Park visited the Taft to study its architecture.

        “It's really elegant and fancy,” said fifth-grader Chelsea Daniels, making her second visit. “It's a beautiful place.”

        The character of the Taft won't change with the renovation, Mr. Long promises.

        The museum, he says, “represents our civility. That may sound boring to some, but it's more important today than I think it's ever been.”


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