During the summer I often have the opportunity to visit an old friend who lives on the other side of the country. She and her husband usher me around the countryside as we discover some of the lesser-known spots of the Northwest. I love this part of the country, especially the high desert country and its tiny towns along old highways. The landscape is very different from New England, where I live, and I always come away inspired and renewed. But a recent visit to the Maryhill Museum of Art was remarkable in another way. The minute I walked through the entry I knew this place was different.
Unlike many other museums, all wonderful in their way, the Maryhill Museum could be called “the whole package.” By that I mean that it had a fascinating personal story about its founder; his public and professional life was incredibly full and varied; the contents of the museum are eclectic, first rate, and in many cases unique; and the setting, overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, offers more visual drama than Broadway.
Sam Hill was born in North Carolina in 1857, into a Quaker family, and worked for a railroad conglomerate. He moved to Seattle in 1899 with his family and eventually turned his interest to roads. He believed that good roads would be essential to the future of American and persuaded the legislature to build a road along the Columbia River Gorge. The result is a spectacular road, still in use, with vistas galore. He built what is now the museum as a private home but his wife hated the West and kept returning east. Hill also tried to build a Utopian town along the river, but it failed.
The private home became a museum when one of Hill’s many friends persuaded him to turn it into a public museum. It was dedicated as such by one of Hill’s many interesting friends, the Queen of Romania, who donated a lot of furniture that she designed (and I've never seen anything like it anywhere else). Much of the art was donated through the auspices of a modern dancer, Loie Fuller, who was a great friend of Rodin.
Hill had a vision that was always larger than his life. He built a replica of Stonehenge as a
The personal story is sad also. His wife hated the West, his son did also, and his daughter had health issues. His family basically abandoned him for the East. But Sam was determined to have a family around him, and eventually created another family with three more children. One of them is an artist and her work is on display at the Museum.
As a writer, I see Maryhill Museum as more than the typical museum for the details of its existence—the story of the founder, his life, the unusual but also remarkable art, the setting, and the way the story lives on. When I write, I’m also thinking of “the whole package,” the depth of characters, their backstories, the setting, the twists of a life and how challenges are resolved, and how the story lives on. When every detail counts, the story becomes more than the sum of its parts.