Central New York’s Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse offers a joyful destination, not only for viewing original sculpture, paintings, and decorative objects, but for the opportunity to experience the unique building which itself is considered a work of art.
The Everson was the first art museum designed by internationally acclaimed architect I.M. Pei, who went on to design the Herbert F. Johnson Museum in Ithaca, the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the new visitor entrance to the Louvre in Paris, among other notable buildings.
Originally known as the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, the Everson was renamed to honor Helen Everson whose generous donation in 1941 led the way to the present museum on Harrison Street in the heart of Onondaga County’s largest city. Completed in 1968, the structure’s four cantilevered gallery blocks surround an open sculpture court. The abstract shapes are made of poured-in-place concrete mixed with a local granite aggregate because its pink hue blends with the city’s many red sandstone buildings. Inside, visitors cross between galleries along small walkways at the corners of the atrium sculpture court. A free-standing curving stairway links three stories of gallery space.
The Everson Museum owns a significant collection of American art dating from colonial times to the present, including familiar works like Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom. There is an internationally known collection of pottery, ceramics and porcelain, but in this first of two articles on the Everson, we will take a closer look at Gustav Stickley: A Craftsman With a Mission, an exhibit of Stickley furniture. An article in a future issue of the magazine will examine Syracuse potter Adelaide Alsop Robineau (1865-1929), and the museum’s formidable ceramics collection.
“Originally installed five years ago, the Stickley exhibition was updated and refurbished last year,” explains Everson’s Communications Associate Julia Monti. “We hope to keep the exhibition up as long as possible as Stickley is an integral part of Syracuse arts history.”
A century ago the Arts & Crafts movement was a fresh approach to design. Syracuse was at the forefront of the movement, being home to one of the most prominent figures of that movement, Gustav Stickley (1858-1942). The movement began in England during the last quarter of the 19th century as a response to the mechanical nature of mass production brought on by the industrial revolution. Handcrafted furniture based on honesty and simplicity was favored by the reformers.
Gustav was the oldest of five brothers who were at different times and locations separately involved in designing and producing furniture and decorative items for the home. The simple well-made furniture is popular today with collectors, but at the time it first appeared, it was a complete departure from the decorative Victorian style. After a trip to Europe in the 1890s, Gustav returned to Syracuse inspired by European Arts & Crafts designers. He developed an influential array of furniture and home designs, and by 1898 he was operating a business called United Crafts in Eastwood, a suburb of Syracuse. He renamed his company Craftsman Workshops by 1905 after starting his publication, The Craftsman, in 1901 which became the voice of the American Arts & Crafts movement.
The Everson Museum exhibit also explains how Stickley’s designs were often derived from 17th- and 18th-century examples, particularly furnishings of 18th-century Spanish Colonial churches. From this influence came alternate descriptions of this popular furnishing style known as Mission or Mission Oak.
The Everson’s display of Stickley furniture is a small but comprehensive introduction to the style. It brings together pieces from the museum’s permanent collection and pieces on long-term loan, including furniture made by both Gustav and his brothers, Leopold and John George (identified as L. & J.G. Stickley on the their furniture labels, they set up shop near their older brother in 1902 in Fayetteville).
The Everson’s display treats the furniture not in the context of room settings but as individual objects. The assortment ranges from a children’s rocker to adult side chairs, from a pedestal table to a library table, from a tapered magazine rack to a large china chest. The approach allows the visitor to focus closely on the workmanship of the individual pieces.
White oak was the favored choice of wood because of its strength and durability. The grain of the wood was emphasized by using a fumed ammonia finish. Natural materials, like leather or rush, were used for seats.
While the predominately rectilinear furniture is largely void of ornamentation, there are intriguing details, like the large hinges on the doors of the circa 1900 sideboard. The pieces display the hallmark tenon-and-key construction, chamfered boards, and exposed tenons familiar to the style. Occasionally there is the use of decoration, like the inlaid copper and pewter on the back of a chair designed by Rochester architect Harvey Ellis during his rather brief tenure in Syracuse. Cutout forms of a spade and club enliven one small table, but the emphasis was on simplicity and utility of design.
Despite the fact that Gustav’s furniture was both attractive, affordable and popular with the middle class, his business went bankrupt and closed in 1916. His brothers’ enterprise continued, expanded and adapted to changing times to include more traditional Early American furniture styles. By the early 1970s, however, the workforce had dwindled to 22 full-time employees, according to the company’s history. The L. & J.G. Stickley Company was eventually purchased by Alfred and Aminy Audi in 1974. Today the company employs over 1,300 at its present location in Manlius, where it moved in 1985.
The Everson Museum of Art, located at 401 Harrison Street in Syracuse, is open Tuesday through Friday and Sunday: noon to 5 p.m.; Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Julia Monti says docent-led tours are free for education groups, not-for-profits, individual tours and the like. “We typically institute a small fee per person for tour groups and other for-profit ventures. All tours require as much notice as possible,” says Monti who explains that the docents are volunteers and not always on the premises.
For directions to the Everson Museum, go to www.everson.org, and for more information, call 315-474-6064.
by Laurel C. Wemett
Laurel C. Wemett is a correspondent for the Messenger-Post Newspapers in Canandaigua.