The Fleming Museum's Marble Court
ARCHITECTURE & HISTORY
 
History of the Museum

The Robert Hull Fleming Museum was built in 1931 in order to house a growing collection of museum artifacts at the University of Vermont. The collection began 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 the collection of fine arts. It became known as the Park Gallery of Fine Arts. Here the collection remained and grew until the late 1920s when the need for an entirely new museum building became immediate. The Fleming Museum owes its creation to a generous act of 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 uncle's 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 in memory of her uncle, Katherine Wolcott donated $150,000 toward its construction. 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.

The Fleming Museum was built at a time when museums were becoming more community-oriented by establishing educational programs, lecture series, and public services. The Fleming Museum was very much a part of this trend toward community service and education. When the Museum opened, it was one of the first to include a room specifically for children. For decades the Museum offered free movies, lectures, and workshops in dancing, painting, and ceramics every Saturday. 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 special exhibition for the blind was supported by the local Rotary and Lions Clubs. With such a strong community focus, 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 each 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 the chair of the Art Department. Anthropology courses were taught using Museum artifacts.

It was also during the 1950s that the University made the decision to change the focus of the Museum entirely to that of an art museum. Many of the artifacts from the original collection, then considered a "cabinet of curiosities," were removed to their respective academic departments at the University in order to make room for new acquisitions. Today, the Fleming collection comprises an extraordinary range of more than 20,000 works of art - paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, sculpture and artifacts, that span continents and centuries from ancient Mesopotamia to contemporary America. Architecture

Architecture

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, and William Mitchell Kendall was part of the second generation of great designers from that firm whose major commissions included the Morgan Library in New York City. The Fleming Museum was one of several buildings designed by McKim, Mead, and White on the University of Vermont campus, beginning with Ira Allen Chapel in 1926 and concluding with the Waterman Building in 1940-41. The Robert Hull Fleming Museum is built in the Colonial Revival style, using red bricks bordered by white painted wood trim, and with architectural elements such as pediments, pilasters, entablatures, and balustrades. The Colonial Revival style evoked early American architectural styles, such as the Georgian and Federal, which, in turn, were based on examples from the Renaissance and antiquity. This style was considered especially appropriate for academic institutions as it was intended to inspire students in their pursuit of knowledge. This theme is echoed in a quotation by Thomas Carlyle inscribed on the north side of the Museum: "Let us search more and more into the past. Let all men explore it as the true fountain of knowledge."

As the original entrance to the Museum, the Marble Court was constructed on a grand scale with a two-story central court and a series of columns supporting a second floor balcony. 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 marbles. Marble was used for the grand staircase, columns, and floors of the Marble Court, which remains one of the most beautiful public rooms in Burlington.

Another impressive space within the museum is the Wilbur Room, finished with walnut paneling and capped with a groin-vaulted, white plaster ceiling, from which hangs a huge brass chandelier. Decorative scrolls along the ceiling contain the names of individuals who influenced the early history of Vermont: Ira Allen, Thomas Chittenden, Ethan Allen, and Stephen R. Bradley. This room originally housed Museum donor James Wilbur's collection of Vermont historical manuscripts, which included the papers of Ethan Allen. The collection was later moved to the University's Bailey/Howe Library where it formed the foundation of Special Collections. A 1.4 million renovation to the Museum was completed in 1984, in which the entrance to the Museum was reoriented from the front to the rear of the building with an addition designed by Crissman and Solomon Associates, Inc., of Watertown, Massachusetts. This change created a handicapped-accessible entrance facing the campus, as well as a new reception area, Museum store, and corridor display cases. The brick rear wall of the original building was retained in the interior wall of this addition. The floor plans of the galleries were altered to allow for more flexible exhibition spaces, and a climate-control system was installed throughout the Museum.