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The facade of the Century Association in New York City. Photo courtesy Big Apple Secrets

CONNECTIONS: Culture in the country, culture in the city

By Tuesday, Oct 9, 2018 Life In the Berkshires

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

“For the purpose of advancing art and literature by establishing a library and gallery of art and by such other means as shall be expedient and proper,” the Century Association was founded in 1847. It was named the Century to indicate membership would be limited to 100 men. It was originally housed in a brick building designed by Gambrill and Richardson at 42 East 15th St.

The library of the Century Association. Photo courtesy business.com

The Association grew out of an earlier club founded in 1829 and called the Sketch Club when its purpose became clear. To the statement of purpose should have been added the word “American.” Founders pledged to advance, foster and support American art and letters. They meant to raise the value of American endeavors at a time when American literature and American art were oxymorons: Literature was English, art was French and architecture was Italian.

In its heyday, the Century supported many painters including George Inness and Asher Durand. It promoted young American authors including Melville and Hawthorne. It supported them by building an impressive library and perhaps an even more impressive art gallery and drawing attention to their works. Members also purchased works for their homes and, in some cases, supported the artists and writers while they worked.

Today the Century Association still thrives. It is housed in a landmarked building designed by McKim Mead and White in 1891. It has more than 2,000 members “authors, artists, and amateurs.” Amateurs are defined as “those with a breadth of interest and quality of mind to make them congenial companions of authors and artists.” Among the members are 29 Nobel Peace Prize winners; the first member awarded the Nobel was Theodore Roosevelt. The Century Association lists its main activity as conversation, and it is still referred to as one of the most exclusive private clubs in New York.

What does this New York institution have to do with the Berkshires? Almost everything: From its earliest antecedent the Sketch Club, it is indebted to Berkshire residents.

Portrait of William Cullen Bryant by Wyatt Eaton

The Sketch Club was founded by Berkshire native and Great Barrington attorney William Cullen Bryant. With friends, Bryant transformed the Sketch Club into the Century Association. One of those friends and fellow founder was Ogden Haggerty.

Ogden Haggerty made his fortune in the New York City auction and commission house Haggerty & Co. He lived at 26 Bond St., New York City, with his wife, Elizabeth Sedgwick Kneeland Haggerty, and his daughters, Annie and Clemence. Their summerhouse, Ventfort, was in Lenox (not today’s Ventfort Hall, but the house that preceded it).

Haggerty was an avid and educated collector. He was the patron of 21-year-old George Inness (1824–91) for 31 years until Haggerty’s death in 1875. Haggerty purchased Inness’ work at generous prices, gave him direct financial assistance and underwrote his travels abroad. Haggerty also introduced Inness and his work to his Lenox friends.

He introduced Inness around the Berkshire colony, and author Catharine Sedgwick commissioned Inness to do a bookplate for one of her titles; Reverend Henry Ward Beecher at Blossom Farm (now Cranwell) and Samuel Ward at Highwood (on Tanglewood grounds) both bought Inness’ works. Haggerty was an avid and educated collector. The works of Asher Durand, Thomas Coles and Inness hung on the walls of Ventfort. His patronage of Inness was seen as an enlightened endorsement. Inness stayed with Haggerty and with Sam Ward, and many of his paintings are Berkshire landscapes on and around the Ventfort and Highwood properties.

Ventfort Hall

On April 24, 1891, the executors for Elizabeth Haggerty sold Ventfort to Sarah Spencer Morgan, wife of George Hale Morgan. They built Ventfort Hall. George and Sarah had three children: Junius Spencer, George Denison and Caroline Lucy Morgan. In 1867, George went into partnership with his father-in-law and brother-in-law Junius Spencer Morgan and J. P. Morgan. That same year, in July, Sarah gave birth to her first son, Junius Spencer Morgan.

Junius was a member of the Century Association in New York City. With his business partner, C.C. Cuyler, they founded the American School of Classical Studies in Rome. Junius was a noted connoisseur and collector and, today, part of his collection is at the Metropolitan Museum.

There were more Berkshire residents who were founders and members of the Century Association. Bryant said that, in addition to artists and writers, members should include physicians, representatives of the press, merchants, men of leisure, and members of the bar and bench. In the latter group was Berkshire resident Joseph Hodges Choate of Naumkeag.

We celebrate Berkshire “culture in the country” today perhaps without realizing the Berkshires’ long and distinguished history of promoting American arts.

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