Overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, hundreds of miles from a major city, on a cattle ranch in rural Washington sits the Maryhill Museum, now celebrating its 80th Anniversary. A dream or a folly, this institution was nurtured into reality by a succession of believers that to this day keep this improbable museum’s vision alive and thriving.
Vividly, Steve Wiegand, the author, describes the four characters that began the museum. Sam Hill, made and lost fortunes. As a young man he cut a dashing figure. An Ivy League graduate, lawyer turned Industrialist, Hill originally began building the Maryhill Estate as a home for his daughter. An adventurer and ardent traveler, Sam Hill crossed the Atlantic more than 61 times to promote business ventures, visit monarchs, and quell his restless spirit.
Alma Spreckels, a statuesque artist’s model and daughter of a laundress, married perhaps the original sugar daddy. She enjoyed traveling the world and after her wealthy husband’s death, she became one of the richest women in America, hosting fundraising events for worthy causes.
The world’s most famous dancer, as she was known, La Loie aka Marie Louise Fuller, was a plump, Vaudeville performer and actress that became a headliner at the Folies-Bergère in Paris. She staged elaborate electrical lightshows to enhance her dances and captivate her audiences. Loie was full of energy and though she had bad luck with money, she had a knack for bringing people together that had both money and aspirations. Introduced to Sam Hill following her recital at one of Alma Spreckels’ fundraisers, Loie eventually gave Sam Hill the idea of turning Maryhill into a Museum. Loie helped Alma Spreckels buy European art and furniture for her mansions. The Queen Marie of Romania, had seen Loie dance in Bucharest and was completely enthralled by her performance. Queen Marie, renowned for her beauty, civility and charm and as part of her efforts to raise funds for her war-ravaged kingdom, went on a tour of the US with two of her children. It was on this tour that Queen Marie helped to inaugurate the Maryhill Museum and make early donations to its collections.
THE DANCER, THE DREAMERS, AND THE QUEEN OF ROMANIA Tells Backstory of Museum Gem in the Wilderness
Today, Rodin drawings and sculpture, a life-size replica of Stonehenge, more than 350 exotic chess sets, a rare Northwestern Indigenous Basket Collection, American realism paintings by the Boston School, Romanian Monarchy artifacts and post WWII Paris fashion miniatures are among the museum’s voluminous collections.
In this telling, author Steve Wiegand, gives credit to the rail workers, road builders, sugar field hands, Hawaiian Island farms acquired through dubious means, and the Romanian peasants for the labor that build the fortunes fueling these original four spirited collaborators.
The Civil War, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, and Eastern European conflicts all played roles in the lives of the individuals involved in establishing and later curating the museum. Donations of private collections for tax write-offs, and self-aggrandizing philanthropy occurred but so did sustaining donations for the institution by believers in the vision of the Maryhill Museum.
This writer found the second half of the book less colorful than the first half, though perhaps quite important to museum champions, as it is devoted to the Herculean efforts to keep the museum alive. The detailed, essential work to establish Maryhill’s accreditation through the Museum Board’s politics, water leaks and renovations, a miniscule operating budget, and early curators with little-to-no art training is extraordinary. You too might be struck by its relevance to today-- with current COVID-19 closures and restricted travel-- the creativity with which the museum board and staff succeeded in keeping the museum afloat may give insights to other cultural institutions battling pandemic hardships.
This is a delightful, well-researched story of the Maryhill Museum, a serendipitous landmark and four early 20th century eccentrics whose histories converged to build it. The Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, history buffs and art historians that enjoy detailed historical accounts of the late 19th through the 21th Centuries will no doubt find this book delectable.
To purchase a copy, visit the Amazon page for THE DANCER, THE DREAMERS AND THE QUEEN OF ROMANIA: HOW AN UNLIKLEY QUARTET CREATED AMERICAN’S MOST IMPROBABLE ART MUSEUM .
Images courtesy of Maryhill Museum, unless otherwise indicated
About the Author: Caryn Hoffman
Ms. Hoffman has a degree in art and her life’s work has been environmentally and politically focused. After community organizing on both coasts, she had a career as an educator in Southern California. Now, semi-retired, Ms. Hoffman leads an active, outdoor lifestyle, continues to advocate for the environment and travels. She is especially fond of art, film, cultural events and is an ardent, live music fan. She loves adventure travel including camping, hiking, kayaking, rafting and road biking.