Museum celebrates 20 years
It’s been 20 years since the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art first opened the doors of its current home. But that white megalith dominating a city block along North Park Avenue has never been the same. It’s expanded, it’s renovated. It’s reinvented.
Opened 73 years ago by a husband and wife with a vision that became an artistic legacy spanning two families, the Morse has grown into a living tribute to the past. It’s a gallery and a home, blended together in a palette of shimmering, translucent Louis Comfort Tiffany glass.
Take a stroll through the 1915 Daffodil Terrace and a calming, airy room greets you, opened up by walls of windows to mimic the feel of an outside promenade. But there’s a hint of a story here beyond what meets the eyes. Like many pieces in the museum’s collection, the Terrace has seen some refurbishment and repairs thanks to smoke and fire damage of its original home in Tiffany’s Laurelton Hall 58 years ago.
Much of this place comes from a very dark moment in the history of American art.
The Morse’s most famous collection may not even have existed were it not for Jeannette Genius McKean and her husband Hugh.
In 1955, 13 years after the museum’s founding on the Rollins College campus by Jeannette, where it would stay for 35 years, Jeannette curated what is believed to be the first exhibition devoted entirely to the colorful glassworks of Tiffany.
The recognition such a curation brought to the McKeans, Winter Park and Tiffany himself, earned attention from the Tiffany camp. And when the Tiffany home, Laurelton Hall, burned in 1957, it was the McKeans whom the Tiffanys called to offer a window or two of the surviving materials.
Just as light pours through opalite, iridescent glass to create dazzling works of art in the famous Tiffany windows, the McKeans saw the light in the surviving materials and decided that one window was not enough; they would take it all. And thus the Tiffany collection of the Morse Museum was born.
“I don’t think it was ever their intention to collect,” said Morse curator Jennifer Perry Thalheimer. “But once the Laurelton Hall burned, it looked like it was something that was going to be gone forever so, very fortunately, they saw the important nature of it and went after it.”
But as Catherine Hinman, director of public affairs and publications for the museum, said, while the Tiffany collection has certainly brought positive attention to the museum, the McKeans had a simple, chief purpose for building the Morse:
“They founded it because they believed every community should have an art museum,” Hinman said. “Because they believed it enriched lives and was a very important part of life.”
The Tiffany collection took roughly 50 years to amass and consists of not just the prime examples of Tiffany windows, but furniture, pottery and a Romanesque, Byzantine-inspired chapel, designed by Tiffany himself for the1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The museum, since its move to its current Park Avenue location, has since expanded to accommodate not only the comprehensive collection of Tiffany works, but its revolving collections of other period works as well. In 2011, a wing was opened to, for the first time, permanently house Tiffany materials.
Built as a scaled-down version of Laurelton Hall, each room, each gallery, each space, was built with the objects that would call it home in mind.
A tall vase sits in an adjacent room devoted to materials saved from the reception area, as it would have sat in the Laurelton Hall reception area, where water bubbled and fell over a concrete water wheel, through a stream and out to a larger water source.
In the Morse, there is no bubbling over, no water wheel, but in a nod to the small stream of Laurelton Hall, there’s a linear, bright blue mosaic that imitates the stream and actually finds its way outside to a fountain on the Morse grounds.
Throughout the other rooms sit the only surviving dining room table from the home, nearly two-dozen leaded glass windows, lamps and paintings.
But before the collection was amassed and gained attention, the Morse was just like any other museum. It had a rotating series of exhibitions and collections. It borrowed and lended works.
Apart from the Tiffany installation, the Morse also exhibits more than 1,000 examples of decorative, craft arts from Europe and America, notably examples of the Art Nouvea movement — an artistic response to the industrial revolution – as well as gifts from the wedding of Elizabeth Owens Morse.
But all roads lead back to Tiffany, as the most recent change visitors can expect to see at the Morse is a switch of one side exhibit of Tiffany lamps. Some will change, some will stay the same, but the goal of the switch is to exhibit more examples of the classic Tiffany furnishings.
But as renown and notoriety grows for the Morse museum and its collections, Hinman remains humble and appreciative of the objects and the opportunities they have given her, as a member of the Morse and a lover of art.
“To be able to work with these great objects and tell their story is really a great privilege.”