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Museum is a treasure that's been here all along

November 21, 2010|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com
  • Tim Rowland
Tim Rowland

William Henry Singer founded the Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Co., but he feared — and refused to ride in — the newfangled automobiles that were fashioned out of the product that he had spent a lifetime developing.

After selling his business to Andrew Carnegie for a mint, Singer enjoyed a quiet life in Pittsburgh and spent pleasant summers vacationing in Watch Hill, R.I.

It was in the summer of 1909 that he decided to put his automotive fears behind him and move in to the 20th century. Out for a spin in the country, Singer's automobile came up behind a poky horse and wagon, which Singer's driver tried to pass. The horse selected that moment to turn in front of the car, which flipped over into a ditch. Singer's fear of cars proved justified — he died from head injuries the next week.

It had been one year since Singer's storied golden wedding anniversary when he rocked society by secreting gifts of $4 million under the plates of each of his four children, one of whom was William H. Singer Jr.

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The younger Singer was returning from a painting trip in Norway at the time of his father's death, but, thanks to the generous inheritance, he would never be a starving artist. In fact, Singer helped prevent other artists from starving by buying their work and allowing them to stay in any of his several homes. It's believed the Singers purchased 20,000 pieces of art during their 40 years in Europe.

Although Singer's own artwork has gained more acclaim of late, few of us would have heard of him had he not married a Hagerstown girl, Anna Brugh, and whisked her away to enjoy the world at large.

Although they spent most of their lives overseas, Anna never forgot her hometown, and during a rare trip back to the states, the couple invited some Hagerstown guests to their apartment at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

"It was a delightful and rare occasion," Marvin Hamilton wrote. "(I)t was then that they unfolded before us their plans to present Hagerstown and Washington County with a cultural center, or museum, broad in scope, embodying the dissemination of art consciousness in our city and county."

In the 80 years that have passed, of course, Washington Countians have demonstrated that they are not easily disseminated upon. For many of us — I'm as guilty as anyone — the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts has been something like the Washington Monument is to many residents of D.C. It will always be there, there will be plenty of time to visit it later on.

And many of us have never come to appreciate what an extraordinary gift the museum was, and is. Even in 1932, a year after its completion, it left the Baltimore Sun scratching its head:

"A Museum of Fine Arts, architecturally charming and filled with paintings and sculpture that would do credit to discriminating metropolitan institutions, is scarcely an orthodox appurtenance of a small inland American city which numbers its population at little more than 30,000 inhabitants."

The museum has been expanded twice and is now in the process of remodeling that will enclose the inner courtyard. This project will feature a handsome garden room and allow visitors to enter the museum as was originally intended — through the grand hallway with a view of the statue of Diana and the City Park lake in the background. This dramatic entrance was eclipsed by past expansions that route visitors into the hall from the side, as something of an afterthought.

Museum Director Rebecca Massie Lane said, as with the entrance, a number of spatial plans and exhibits will be rethought and improved in the coming years. Already, those who haven't visited for a while might be surprised at the museum's penchant for interaction, especially for young people. Lane said she would like for the community to become more involved — as it once was — in the selection of exhibits.

Of course, that depends on luring visitors and attracting donations to help secure matching grants for the courtyard renovation. If you've never been, you might be astounded by the collections — everything from the Old Masters to Norman Rockwell.

The museum is here by random chance — a product of love and money that landed a magnificent cultural facility way out in the hinterlands and far from the city's maddening crowds. For the holidays, there are few better gifts than to indulge yourself in a treasure that's been here all along.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via e-mail attimr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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