A Room of One's Own

Laurence Channing Head of Publications

When the 1916 building reopens in June the clarity of its original conception will be restored, except for one room whose conception never was clear. The soaring vaulted space with Romanesque columns that we know as the Interior Garden Court has become a gallery of Italian Baroque painting and sculpture. Instead of architectural fragments, works by Caravaggio, Andrea del Sarto, and Tintoretto will hang on plaster walls that we remember as rough brick.

 

The Interior Garden Court was always an anomaly in the suite of galleries around it, a brick duckling among marble swans. Through most of 1915, as the interior of the building was in progress, a battle raged between the architects Hubbell & Benes, who sought to dignify the interior, and the two principal museum professionals, director Frederick Whiting and his ally Henry W. Kent, who deliberately sought an unfinished space. 

Assistant secretary at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Kent had discreetly turned down the director’s job in Cleveland, but nevertheless threw himself into important tasks for the new museum, advising and researching acquisitions and reviewing architectural plans. He and Whiting agreed that the museum’s interior should be undecorated (by the standards of the day), a blank canvas that curators could complete. In the face of their steadfast opposition architect Benjamin Hubbell advanced schemes like a grand decoration of the rotunda—adjacent to the Interior Garden Court—by Tiffany Studios, involving mosaics and aluminum leaf, almost as rich as Tiffany’s interior in Lake View Cemetery’s Wade Chapel, also designed by Hubbell & Benes. 

George Barnard’s Cloister

Every building designed as an art museum balances architectural finish with the neutrality necessary for installation. Hubbell’s idea of a public building demanded beautifully clad surfaces, and where structure was emphasized, as in the dome of a rotunda, to eschew ornament was to waste an opportunity. But brick, commonly hidden by stone or plaster, was an abomination. And he was not convinced by a visit to the true inspiration for this idea: George Barnard’s Cloister on the northern tip of Manhattan.

The journey back in time we take when we enter the Cluny museum in Paris or the Sforza Castle in Milan can only be facilitated in America by new construction in an ancient style; the best examples are the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and The Cloisters in New York, but in other museums around the country this idea animated the installation of several collections. Henry Kent was very familiar with its most recent exponent, a sort of brick barn in the shape of a basilica studded with medieval arches, columns, and sculpture collected by the American sculptor George Grey Barnard. 

Henry Kent

The very lack of finish in this building appealed to Kent for two reasons: its raw masonry suited the period aesthetic, and its unfinished state could present some wealthy benefactor with an opportunity to pay for its completion. Indeed, Barnard’s own Cloister appealed in just this way to John J. Rockefeller, who funded its transformation into The Cloisters, very near Barnard’s original site. Kent and Whiting entertained similar hopes for their venture, and actively pursued donors who, had they been interested, might have funded a completely different result. 

Hubbell inspected Barnard’s installation without changing his mind, writing to Whiting in February 1915 that he was proceeding “under protest, it being our firm conviction that the insertion of a room with common brick walls, which must of necessity be used as a means of communication between rooms having marble and sandstone walls, will be an architectural mistake.” 

The Cloisters as reconstructed on the current site

The building committee, weary of the controversy, voted for Whiting and Kent. But Whiting found the bricklaying too mechanical, with wide joints “like the outer walls of the YMCA.” The architects refused to budge without a vote from the committee, most of whom were out of town. At last the authority Whiting sought arrived by telegram from various winter watering spots, and the first attempt was torn out, to be replaced by a less mechanical format—“random bond”—with the joints raked out, more antique in appearance and plasterable should a donor choose to fund a more finished room. 

Several architectural fragments were inserted in the brick walls. In Italy a timely earthquake made some “fine columns” available, and these equipped the arcade on the south and the loggia at the west end. A fountain was installed in the center, and an oasis was created, a serene space where visitors could recharge their batteries before grappling with more art. Later, its acoustical properties attracted the McMyler Memorial organ, which was installed over the loggia until the construction of Gartner Auditorium, and many of us remember concerts of all sorts enhanced by its sonorous, if homely, walls.

Now those walls will finally receive the finishing touches that Henry Kent hoped for; the generous donor has arrived at last. 

In 2008, the garden court is reborn as a gallery for Italian baroque art, and finally receives the level of finish its designers originally envisioned.

 


Cleveland Art, May/June 2008