Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and Architect James Gamble Rogers

The original entrance to the 1916 museum, then known as the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery.
Last week, I was happy to present the Decorative Arts Trust Volunteer of the Year Award to Stanton Thomas, a Board of Directors member who really goes above and beyond in all phases of our group's organization and activities.  There is no aspect that he does not pitch in and provide assistance.  The ceremony was particularly notable for Memphis Brooks Museum of Art as it marked the anniversary of the opening dedication 95 years ago on May 26, 1916.
The sculptures "Spring", "Summer", and "Fall" by Wheeler Williams previously adorned the 1955 wing, razed by a subsequent additon, and are now displayed against the backdrop of the original 1916 building.
Originally known as the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, the beautiful building has been referred to as "the jewel box in the park" ever since its construction at a cost of $115,000.  Initiated by Mrs. E.A. Neely, there had been various interests and efforts to establish an art museum since 1906, the same year that the nearby Overton Park Zoo was established.  The project did not significantly develop until 1913, however, when Bessie Vance Brooks donated $100,000 to the City of Memphis in honor of her late husband, Samuel Hamilton Brooks, who died in 1912.  S.H. Brooks had moved to Memphis from Ohio in 1858 to work in his brother's wholesale grocery business.  After serving in the Confederate army, he formed Brooks-Neely wholesale grocers which was a prosperous partnership until Brooks' retirement in 1897.  Brooks married his second wife, Bessie Vance, in 1902.  From a prominent Memphis family and formerly an art student in Paris, Mrs. Brooks was inspired by the plans that had been developed by Mrs. Neely, the wife of her late husband's business partner, and hired New York architect James Gamble Rogers to design a museum in 1913.

The Holly Court garden was developed by The Little Garden Club and is now maintained by The Brooks Museum League. 
James Gamble Rogers was already well known in Memphis as the architect of the Shelby County Courthouse, the first of his civic commissions, 1905-09.  Local bank president N.C. Perkins had headed a ten year crusade for a new courthouse to represent the spirit of the City Beautiful movement.  In 1904, Perkins and the selection committee visited the Chicago office of Daniel H. Burnham, then the most successful architect for corporate America and the guiding spirit of the City Beautiful movement.  Burnham recommended his former employee James Gamble Rogers.
The Shelby County Courthouse, Memphis, in an early view.
James Gamble Rogers was born in Kentucky in 1867, but grew up in a middle class subdivision on the north side of Chicago.  Rogers received a scholarship to Yale where he was introduced to a new culture and friendships from a wide range of backgrounds including scions of wealthy New York clans and descendants of old New England families.  After graduation, Rogers toured Europe, not as a "grand tour" but as a member of an exhibition baseball team organized by A.J. Spalding to introduce the sport.  In 1889, he returned to Chicago and went to work in the office of William LeBaron Jenney.  (Some designate Jenney's 1885 Home Insurance Building to be the first skyscraper).  At this time, there were no courses at Yale for architecture as a profession, so it was this first office experience that became the model for James Gamble Rogers' career.  After two years, he joined Burnham & Root for a short time before opening his own office in 1891.  He interrupted his practice to study at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  There he learned the two organizational principles that were to have the most influence on his designs, the parti (overall layout) and the correct use of the classical orders.  Returning to Chicago in 1898, he went into practice with his brother John Arthur, starting with a number of residential commissions, both mansions and apartment houses.  From 1904 to 1907, he was a partner in the Boston firm Hale & Rogers.
Laurel Court, the Peter Thomson House, 1904-08, Cincinnati, Ohio, designed by James Gamble Rogers, was that city's most expensive home in its day.  Located on the highest point in the county, it was opened to the public in 2007.
In 1905, Rogers was awarded a commission that had an effect on the rest of his career and allowed him to move to New York City.  The mansion for Mr. and Mrs. Edward Harkness is a seven story house which appears as only four stories with the main block clad in Tennessee marble, exceptionally detailed.  To this day, the house ranks among the best designed great residences in Manhattan.  The childless philanthropists were generous with cash donations to a number of educational and medical institutions, and bequeathed their artworks to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  But the family's greatest gift was the creation of The Commonwealth Fund, whose headquarters are now located in the meticulously maintained house.
The Harkness mansion, located on East 75th Street at Fifth Avenue, is now the headquarters of the charitable foundation created by the Harkness family, The Commonwealth Fund.  Photo:  Museum of The City of New York.
More commissions from other Harkness family members followed, along with those from additional Yale connections.  N.C. Perkins, the Memphis bank president who had first brought Rogers to Memphis for the Shelby County Courthouse, commissioned Rogers in 1909 to design a new building for his own Central Bank and Trust.

The Central Bank and Trust Building, Memphis, designed by James Gamble Rogers, built 1911-12.
The Brooks Museum, the only museum building Rogers ever designed, is a magnificent small marble pavillion.  He went on to design numerous buildings for hospitals and universities, notably for the Yale campus, in both the Colonial Revival style and the Collegiate Gothic style.  This academic work kept his office busy during The Great Depression and medical work, which included those projects made possible by the Harkness-sponsored charites, bolstered the office during WWII.  James Gamble Rogers died in 1946 at age 79.

James Gamble Rogers
Additions to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in 1955 by Everett Woods and 1973 by Walk Jones + Francis Mah gave only a marginal nod to the original 1916 building.  A 1986 addition by Skidmore Owings and Merrill in conjunction with local firm Askew, Nixon, Ferguson & Wolfe demolished the 1955 wing and made an effort to respect the original building, but the success is arguable;  the Post-Modern design won an award from Progessive Architecture magazine, however.  This last construction provided a new entrance, administrative offices, restaurant, kitchen, storage and service areas, but very little new exhibition space.  By the time of the Brooks centennial, it is hoped that a successful campaign will have been completed to allow the construction of another exhibition wing and more suitable public spaces for the next hundred years of the beloved institution.

All black & white photos, except as noted, are from James Gamble Rogers and the Architecture of Pragmatism by Aaron Betsky, An Architectural History Foundation Book, MIT Press, 1994.  See www.decorativeartstrust.com/ for more information about Decorative Arts Trust.


  1. Great and information-packed post! I am a big fan of the work of JGR, having lived in and enjoyed his buildings while an undergraduate at Yale. He also designed the Yale Club in NYC, which has been rather badly "improved" in recent years, I am sorry to say. Reggie

  2. Thanks so much. Folks, make sure to click on the picture then click it again to make it big so you can see the details. The closer I look the more I like.

  3. Thanks, Terry. If you are not already familiar with James Gamble Rogers' work in Atlanta, I think you would enjoy searching it out. In the 1930s, he designed the Library, Thayer Hall, and the President's House for Atlanta College, which I understand is now Clark-Atlanta University.

  4. Those interested in great Manhattan houses would also like the Bulkley residence, 600 Park Avenue at East 64th Street, which was designed by James Gamble Rogers as well. Completed in 1910, it is a handsome palazzo that is now the Swedish Embassy.

  5. Thank you, Reggie. Built 1912-15,about the same time as the planning for the Brooks museum, the Yale Club was certainly unprecedented in both size and scope for a clubhouse, and Rogers did a good job in dividing the mass vertically according to function.

  6. And he channeled the Morgan Library more than slightly, did he not?

    Great post.

  7. Yes, D.E.D., surely Mr. Morgan's library was an influence. Built 1902-06 to the design by architect Charles McKim of McKim, Meade & White, it was highly regarded from the start. The Morgan is majestic yet wonderfully scaled; the Brooks is smaller but still majestic yet intimate. I will do another post about the Brooks in the future to better show the detail and give a better idea of the scale.

  8. i may be through that area this summer and would love to check it out. (especially the sculptures.)


  9. Kelly, the museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. There is "Pay What You Can" admission on Wednesdays. For more general museum information, see www.brooksmuseum.org/ For a city facility its size, it is a nice museum. You might also enjoy the Dixon Galleries and Garden (to be featured in a future post).


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