Robert Hull Fleming Museum
The following is an excerpt from a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places that was researched and written by Michael McQuillen, graduate student, in 1999 as part of his course work in the University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program.
The Robert Hull Fleming Museum in Burlington, Vermont, was built in 1931 in order to house an ever increasing collection of museum artifacts at the University of Vermont. This collection was created in 1826, when faculty and friends of the University of Vermont proposed a society whose goal was, "the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge in every department of natural history, and the accumulation of books, instruments and all materials which can advance these ends." Although originally distinct from the University, this society, called the College of Natural History, housed its early collections in the Old Mill building on the University Green. Early donations included fossils, stuffed birds, a sperm whale tooth, and a cannon ball that a local resident found while gardening. This eclectic collection of geological, zoological, and anthropological gifts soon outgrew its space in Old Mill and was moved to Torrey Hall in 1862. Within a decade a third story was added to Torrey Hall to house an art gallery. Here the collection remained and grew until the late 1920s when the need for an entirely new museum building became immediate.
Like most other University of Vermont buildings built before this time, the Fleming Museum owes its creation to private philanthropy. In 1929 Katherine Wolcott, niece and sole heir of Robert Hull Fleming, came to Burlington from Chicago in the hopes of establishing a scholarship in her uncleís memory. A graduate of the University of Vermont, class of 1862, Robert Hull Fleming settled in Chicago where he became a very successful grain merchant. After meeting with University President Guy Bailey, who proposed the idea of funding a new museum building, Miss Wolcott donated $150,000 toward its construction in order to serve as a memorial to her uncle. An additional gift came from James B. Wilbur of Manchester, Vermont, who donated $100,000 toward the building, along with his extensive collection of books and papers dealing with the history of Vermont. Together, these two donations covered most of the $300,000 construction cost and, coupled with an additional endowment gift of $150,000 from Miss Wolcott, they brought the plans for a museum to fruition.
Construction of the Fleming Museum came during a period of expansion for the University of Vermont. Chartered in 1791, the same year Vermont was admitted to the union, the campus grew around the University Green, located on University Place between Colchester Avenue and Main Street. When Guy Bailey became president of the University in 1919, he seized upon a period of general prosperity and aggressively sought to increase the endowment and the number of students and buildings at the school. Attempting to make the University of Vermont an academic equal to the Ivy League, President Bailey persuaded wealthy individuals, such as Katherine Wolcott and James Wilbur, to support the school's growth. Although his legacy saw an increase in enrollment and the construction of a number of buildings, Bailey overextended the resources of the school and, at the end of his term as University president in 1940, the school was $500,000 in debt.
The architect of the Fleming Museum was William Mitchell Kendall of the prestigious New York architectural firm, McKim, Mead, and White. At the turn of the century, McKim, Mead, and White was the largest architectural office in the world. William Mitchell Kendall had been admitted to the firm as partner in 1906, and, after the death or departure of the principal partners, he became part of the second generation of great designers whose major commissions included the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., built in 1932.
The Fleming Museum was the third McKim, Mead, and White building on the University of Vermont campus. Ira Allen Chapel, the first, was built in 1926, on the northeastern portion of the University Green. It was followed two years later by Slade Hall, a residential building on the University's Redstone Campus. Mabel Louise Southwick Memorial Hall, 1934 - 1936, is also located on this campus, and was designed as an academic building. The final McKim, Mead and White building was the Waterman Building. Built from 1940 - 1941 and located across the University Green from the Ira Allen Chapel, it served many functions including a dining hall, library, administrative building, and residence. All these buildings are built in the Colonial Revival style, using red bricks bordered by white painted wood trim, and share common architectural elements such as pediments, pilasters, entablatures, and balustrades.
From the late 1920s through the 1930s, the Colonial Revival style was frequently used in the academic building designs of McKim, Mead, and White. The 1926 Hall Laboratory of Chemistry at Wesleyan University and Harvard University's School of Business Administration, built a year later, are two prominent examples. The Colonial Revival style evoked early American architectural styles, such as the Georgian and Federal, which were based in the Renaissance and antiquity. Alluding to the development of art, science, and literature during the Renaissance, this style was especially appropriate for academic institutions as it was intend to inspire students in their pursuit of knowledge.
On the interior of the Fleming Museum, plans included a two-story, open air, central court. Miss Wolcott based the concept for this space on the sculpture court she saw in the Isaac Delgado Art Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. She made a rough sketch of this courtyard for William Mitchell Kendall, who, in 1928, had designed a similar space in the Cohen Memorial Fine Arts Building at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee. The result in the Fleming Museum was the exquisite Marble Court, constructed of Italian, French, and Vermont marble. Marble, a form of metamorphic limestone, was used for the floors, grand staircase, and columns of the Marble Court, which remains one of the most beautiful public rooms in Burlington.
With its symmetrical, two-story, rectangular shape, open galleries, central court, and, grand staircase, the Fleming Museum resembles many American museums built in the decades around 1900 that were influenced by the Beaux Arts movement and the 1893 Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., built in 1895, is an early example of this type of museum that was designed on a grand scale in order to convey its permanence and civic importance.
During this period there was an acceleration in museum building in the United States. In 1921 the American Federation of Arts listed 153 museums, and by 1931, the number had reached 235. Museums were also becoming more community oriented by establishing educational programs, lecture series, and public services.
The Fleming Museum was very much a part of this community oriented trend. An important aspect in the legacy of the Fleming is its service and mission to educate its community, especially children. When the museum opened, it was one of the first to included a room specifically for children. It contained an aquarium, desks, and slide projector. For decades the museum offered free movies, lectures, and workshops in dancing, painting, and ceramics every Saturday. Children who attended the Saturday series became part of the "Junior Guild." The 1938 Museum Director's Report concerning the behavior of the 300 - 400 children who visited the museum on Saturdays on a weekly basis demonstrates the impact of these programs: "to be deprived, even for two weeks, of the Museum Guild Badge is a hardship which makes for admirable deportment." A traveling exhibit program was established for schools whose students could not come to the Fleming Museum. Educational programs were also extended to adults in the form of evening lectures and classes, which received an equally enthusiastic response. A "Museum for the Blind" exhibit was also created that involved taking artifacts that could be safely handled and arranging them on small tables. Letters were sent to the approximately 500 sightless individuals in Vermont inviting them to the exhibit, with local Rotary Clubs and Lions Clubs providing money for transportation. With such a commitment to the education and entertainment of the community it is not surprising that the Fleming Museum attracted large numbers of visitors. At a time in the mid-1930s when the population of Burlington was approximately 27,000 inhabitants, an estimated 25,000 - 30,000 people visited the Fleming Museum per year.
This commitment to education also benefited the University of Vermont. Its Studio Art and Art History departments originated in the Fleming Museum. In the 1950s, the museum director also served as director for the Art department. Anthropology courses were taught using museum artifacts. James Wilbur's collection of Vermont letters, papers, and documents, which was originally housed in the Fleming Museum, now makes the foundation of Special Collections in the University library. Likewise, in the spirit of greater accessibility, the museum's film library has also been relocated to the University library.
It was also during the 1950s that the museum began to transform itself in a fine arts museum. Many of the artifacts from the original collection, dubbed a "cabinet of curiosities," were removed to their respective academic departments at the University in order to make room for new acquisitions. Although still quite eclectic, the focus of the collection is different and the museum now receives national attention with its Fine, Decorative, and Ethnographic Arts that include the works of such masters as Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Albrecht Durer, Pablo Picasso, and Winslow Homer. With over 20,000 objects valued at $15 million, the current collection is the largest in the state.
From 1982 - 1985, the museum underwent a $1.3 million renovation that involved the installation of a climate-control system. This project also involved the installation of an addition on the back of the building that reoriented the museum's main entrance. This addition was designed by Crissman and Solomon Associates, Inc., of Watertown, Massachusetts.