The Christmas season is a special time to visit Gari Melchers’ Home and Studio at Belmont.
On October 19, 1975, Mary Washington College President Prince Woodard presided over the public opening of the Gari Melchers Memorial Gallery, making the artist’s Belmont home and painting studio available to the public on a regular schedule for the first time.
The opening of the museum took over twenty years to accomplish, in the face of numerous governance decisions by the Virginia General Assembly, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the University of Virginia and finally Mary Washington College, all of which had involvement in the winding road of acceptance and implementation of Corinne Melchers’ wishes as outlined in her 1942 gift to the Commonwealth, which was effective at her death in 1955.
Gari and Corinne Melchers purchased Belmont in 1916, finding a pleasant country retreat similar to what they had enjoyed for many years in Egmond, Holland, where Gari was able to concentrate on his work away from the distractions of Paris, where his professional life was centered. After leaving Europe during the turmoil of the war years, Gari established a studio in New York City, but again longed for a rural retreat that he found at Belmont.
During his sixteen years in Virginia, Gari Melchers involved himself in the cultural life of his adopted state, eventually being named chair of the Virginia Arts Commission in 1932. From that post he oversaw the refurbishment of the state capitol building decorations and statuary, and began the development of what was to become the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. After his death later that year, Corinne was appointed to his position on the commission and became one of the founding trustees of the VMFA when it opened in 1935. She had developed a close relationship with Thomas Colt, the museum’s first curator and director, and spurred by a VMFA memorial exhibition of Gari’s work in 1938, by 1942 had worked out a plan to deed Belmont and its collections to the museum at her death.
By the time of Corinne’s passing in 1955, and the subsequent transfer of the property and art collections to the Commonwealth, the administration of the VMFA and the reputation of Gari Melchers in art circles had changed considerably. No longer was Melchers considered an important American artist, and his Falmouth home had become run down and in need of major repairs. The VMFA board almost immediately sought to be relieved of the burden of supporting what they saw as a white elephant fifty miles from Richmond. Fredericksburg’s Mary Washington College, then part of the University of Virginia, was approached and accepted the responsibility for overseeing the site, but could not provide funding for either staff or major improvements that would allow public use. It was not until 1975, under a new college administration that was committed to opening the site as a public museum, that Corinne’s wishes were finally carried out.
Since that autumn day forty years ago, the museum now known as Gari Melchers Home and Studio has kept alive Mrs. Melchers’ goal of preserving and celebrating the now revived artistic legacy of her accomplished husband, and providing a public setting in which to enjoy his art and the historic locale that they so lovingly maintained.
In the early years under Belmont’s first director, Richard Reid, only the first floor of the house and the studio were open a few days a week, staffed by volunteers. In 1984, under the guidance of Reid, an important illustrated reference book, Gari Melchers: His Works in the Belmont Collection, was published by MWC professor Joseph Dreiss. By the mid-1980s hours had expanded to seven days a week, and Reid’s successor Peter Grover leveraged state and private funds to restore the original house and modernize the utilities to both preserve the collections and increase the comfort of visitors. It was at this time that a major retrospective exhibition of Gari Melchers’ best work traveled the country, reviving public and critical interest in his place in American painting.
In the early 90s, under current director David Berreth, the formal gardens were restored with the help of the Garden Club of Virginia, which has continued to support the restoration of the estate’s landscape based on the voluminous photographs and records saved by Mrs. Melchers. In 1995 a former garage was converted into a visitor center and museum shop to welcome guests and increase revenues. The building now also serves as the official Stafford County Visitor Center, promoting regional tourism and the study of local history.
By 2001 the original studio building was fully restored to provide a safe, climate controlled facility in which to house a rotating display over 500 works by Gari Melchers. This thoroughly professional venue allows the museum to borrow major works and exhibitions from other museums around the country. And in 2006 a new public event pavilion and collection storage facility was completed, allowing the museum to host a wide variety of public educational programs, concerts, and workshops, along with private events like wedding receptions and business retreats. All of this work was accomplished through combinations of private and state funding, which demonstrated the depth of support from the now University of Mary Washington, and a cadre of local donors and private foundations focused on historic preservation.
Today, Gari Melchers Home and Studio hosts visitors from every corner of the world, and is a regular stop for local residents and regional guests. Corinne Melchers’ dream has been realized, and we celebrate her vision and dedication to art and its ability to endure and inspire, as it has for over forty years on the hill overlooking Falmouth.
Winter is a good time to settle down with seed and plant catalogs and a nice cup of hot tea. The weather is freezing and gardeners are hiding inside, out of the wind and cold. We can still garden however, at least in our heads.
Mailboxes, both digital and physical, are filled with seed and plant catalogs that allow us to dream and plan for spring. I prefer the paper version for browsing since I can dog ear or use a post-it to mark my selections, but I like to order on-line as it will let you know instantly if the seeds you want are available. Many catalogs offer seedlings as well, this is a great option if you only want a few plants or if you can not be bothered with growing your own plants from seeds.
I try to plant what I know Corinne Melchers used in the garden, or at least the variety of plants that were available to her during the period she gardened at Belmont, 1916-1955. This means I purchase a lot of heirloom plants, and I have found that this has many benefits. Some, though not all, heirloom seeds that are available for sale are Open Pollinated (OP) seeds and these will grow true from the seeds they produce, meaning you can save their seeds year to year and get the same plant that you initially purchased.
Another benefit of heirloom plants is that they usually are much more fragrant than their modern hybrids, and this is the benefit I enjoy the most, just one deep whiff of an old rose is enough to make you a convert. Many of the old varieties are quite disease resistant and tough survivors, this is especially true of roses and peonies. Some of these plants have been around for hundreds of years and growing them is a wonderful way to connect with the past.
Here are some of my favorite catalogs, have fun!
A Wedding Sampler
Sunday, January 18, 1-4 pm. $10 includes Studio admission
Meet the area’s most respected and popular caterers, photographers, and wedding specialists for a fun and informative afternoon. Pre-registration suggested: 540/654-1848 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sweetheart Wine Pairing Dinner
Saturday, February 14, 5:30 pm. Members $75/non-members $95
Celebrate this special day with a four-course dinner catered by Dori Farrell, featuring wines chosen for each course by Ingleside Winery. Reservations required by February 7: 540/654-1848 or email@example.com.
Belmont is partnering with Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) for a showing of FOR’s new film, ‘Rappahannock.’ This historic and cultural film about the Rappahannock River is produced by Oscar-nominated Bailey Silleck. John Odenkirk of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries will give a short presentation about the river’s health in our area and the impact of the Embrey Dam removal; a Q&A will follow. This is a family-friendly, free event.
Spotlight Exhibition: Melchers’ The Crimson Rambler
February 28-June 7. Included with museum admission
Gari Melchers built a reputation painting the human figure, but in the second half of his career he sometimes ventured into landscape painting. The Crimson Rambler, on loan from a private collection, exemplifies how the garden as subject matter was ideally suited to Melchers’ adoption of impressionistic painting.
Director’s Tour for Members
Sunday, March 1, 2 pm. Free
Beeping Egg Hunt
Sunday, March 29, 2-4 pm. Free
Belmont’s fourth annual Beeping Easter Egg Hunt for visually impaired or blind children and their families. For information contact Education and Communications Manager Michelle Crow-Dolby at 540/654-1851.
Spring Open House
Sunday, April 12, 10 am-5 pm. Free
Enjoy the restored gardens in bloom, the art of Gari Melchers and the history of Belmont. The Spring Open House is a great opportunity to share Belmont with family and friends.
The Colonial Revival Movement
Sunday, April 26, 2 pm. Free
Belmont Site Preservation Manager Beate Jensen traces the Colonial Revival from its emergence in the 1870s. The movement profoundly influenced American architecture and decorative arts as well as landscape and garden design. The illustrated presentation focuses on the influence the Colonial Revival had on Gari and Corinne Melchers and how it is expressed in Belmont’s house and gardens.
The Painted Garden: A Favorite Motif in American Impressionism
Sunday, May 3, 2 pm. Free
An illustrated presentation by Belmont Curator Joanna Catron shows how early 20th century American impressionist painters demonstrated a preference for gardens as subjects, as well as an appreciation for the art of gardening itself. The talk will survey the many talented artists, including Gari Melchers, who left us an enduring legacy of American Garden craft.
Since my first days at Belmont in 1999, I have combed through our archives looking for clues to what the buildings, gardens, and grounds looked like when Gari and Corinne Melchers lived and worked here.
It became apparent early on that roses played an important part in the landscape. The archives are filled with photographs, letters, and scraps of paper, all helping me to tease out the names of roses that grew in their garden. The hunt for replacement of the old roses, some of which are very rare, has been very rewarding as well, and has allowed me to meet and correspond with rosarians and rose collectors across the world.
Corinne Melchers was the main force behind the garden, and she planted roses on arbors, trellises and in boxwood edged beds. She purchased the newest hybrids available from nurseries, or traded cuttings from friends, resulting in a wide range of roses in the collection. So far, the archives search has uncovered 33 different varieties, ranging from huge sprawling monster roses to delicate and fragile specimens.
Most of the roses original to the garden were lost over the years. But thanks to Bill and Maxine Chandler, longtime caretakers at Belmont, some of the roses original to the time when Gari and Corinne Melchers lived at Belmont survived. Bill Chandler took cuttings from the old plants growing on the arbors and nurtured them in his own garden. His skill saved Tausendschön, a Hybrid Multiflora, and American Pillar, a rambler, which grew on the arbors at either end of the Long Walk.
Another two survivors from early days is the rose on the fence between the stable and smoke house and the brilliant red rose growing on the spring house arbor. These are both root stock roses, meaning they originally had a more exotic rose grafted to them. The graft died, but the root stock survived. The result is the fragrant and lovely Fun Jwan Lo, and Dr. Heuey, both vigorous roses used as a root stock in the 1920’s. They are not the roses Corinne Melchers chose, but both are so lovely and tough, that I have decided to leave them in place. I purchase only non-grafted stock, also known as own root roses, for the gardens. They take a little more time to get established, but the will come true from the root should cold weather or stray lawnmowers cut them to the ground. Own root roses are available from nurseries specializing in antique or old roses, see links at the end to find great sources.
Most of the named varieties I have found in the archives do not have a reference to where they were planted in the garden, but the roses on the east and west porches are exceptions. Mrs. Melchers noted that she planted Paul’s Scarlet Climber on the east porch and Aviateur Bleriot on the west side of the house. Both are back in place, and the trellises they grow on are made to match the originals, based on archival photographs.
A Town and Country Magazine article from 1928 makes mention of the “rose garden edged in box”. Two boxwood edged beds, flanking the Visitor Center, then carriage house, were re-created by the Garden Club of Virginia in the fall of 2012 as part of the ongoing garden restoration effort. Mrs. Melchers planted these beds with the hybrid tea roses Gruss An Achen, and Radiance, and it is rewarding to see this lovely mix of pink colors blooming once more.
Corinne Melchers did not specialize in one rose category, but planted roses that pleased her esthetic values. Hybrid tea roses became very popular at the turn of the century, and Mrs. Melchers tried many new varieties, such as the single hybrid tea rose Dainty Bess. She also used hybrid perpetual roses, the luscious Paul Neyron is one example which falls in the category of “cabbage” roses, with flower-heads are as big as small cabbages.
All the roses planted in the main garden area are replacements of rose varieties gleaned from the archives. There is one exception to this rule, however; the roses flanking the memorial plaque in the Studio wall. The ashes of both Gari and Corinne Melchers are interred in the wall, and I have planted roses corresponding with the years of their birth and death to mark their final resting place. Roses are associated with love and purity, and have been a common adornment in cemeteries for many centuries. In fact, many old roses have been found and saved by “rose rustlers” who, with permission of course, take cuttings from old roses to propagate and spread the historic plant material across the nation. In fact, a rose thought to be extinct, the Musk Rose, was discovered by group of rustlers growing in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. It is now saved and grows in many gardens.
Gari Melchers was born in 1860, and Corinne Melchers died in 1955. The roses planted in front of their internment site represent almost one hundred years of rose breeding. It is interesting to see the difference in their habit, blooms, and presence, or lack of, scent, rose hips, etc. in the four roses planted there. They reflect the traits rose breeders thought would appeal to the public, and illustrate that what we find desirable in our roses has changed over the years. The roses in this bed range from a finicky, but deeply fragrant tea rose called Mme. Joseph Schwartz, released in 1880, the year of Corinne Melchers birth, to a sturdy, scentless, showy shrub called Dortmund, introduced in 1955.
Depending on the weather, the main rose season starts in April and goes through early June, with some roses putting out flowers all year long.
There are lots of great resources related to old roses. Here are just a few to get you hooked.
During my periodic Director’s Tours and when I’m helping out with regular tours, visitors often ask me what that thing is mounted on the outside wall of the sun porch. Most correctly guess that it is some sort of sundial, but no-one has been able to describe how it works. So after a little research here is the answer.
When Gari and Corinne Melchers added a sun porch on the south end of Belmont’s main house in 1916, they included second floor bathrooms that connected to the two original bedrooms on that level. They incorporated small windows in each bathroom to allow a view of the gardens, but could not place a window on the wall between the bathrooms where the plumbing pipes were installed. To soften a visually awkward solid blank wall, the Melcherses installed a vertical sundial similar to types they may have seen in Europe.
However, for unknown reasons, it appears the couple did not add hour numbers or lines to indicate the time of day that was marked by the shadow of the dial. Perhaps they assumed that most people in their day had experience with sundials and knew how to read them, or the markings were painted over sometime in the past (someday we’ll do an investigation of the paint layers).
The images below will hopefully help solve the question of how to read Belmont’s sundial.