In Cornish, Beaux-Arts Redux? Plan Calls for Reviving Famed Artists Retreat
The view behind Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, which is now part of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Wallpaper inside the main farmhouse has not been changed since its previous owner lived in the building. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
The main house at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, now part of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, is pictured earlier this month. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
The cupola in the dance hall at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish is photographed from below. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Cornish — Once home to famed artists, writers and musicians of the Cornish Art Colony, the 43 acres of Blow-Me-Down Farm on Route 12A may soon play host to creative types once again, pending approval from the National Park Service and providing it can secure the necessary funding.
Last week marked the beginning of a 30-day public comment period for Park Service’s proposed plan for the property, which can be found at parkplanning.nps.gov.
Donated to the Park Service by the Saint-Gaudens Memorial in 2010, Blow-Me-Down Farm is part of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, which includes the former home of the 19th century Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and is now a center to educate the public about his place in American art. As Charles Beaman, the owner of the farm and other property, attracted artists such as Saint-Gaudens to Cornish, the Cornish Art Colony was founded in the late 1800s, attracting such luminaries as the illustrator Maxfield Parrish, the actress Ethel Barrymore and editor Maxwell Perkins, to name a few.
“It’s what Cornish and Plainfield are best known for,” said Barbara MacAdam, the Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. “It’s central to their identity.”
The proposal’s first option — a formality required by the Parks Service — would maintain the farm under its current status — typically closed to the public and preserved as a historic site off-limits to visitors.
“One of the options has to be a no-action alternative or management continuity alternative, which means taking care of the buildings but not adapting the property for future use,” said Rick Kendall, superintendent of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.
But the alternative and the one favored by many community members and the Parks Service’s own staff, Kendall said, would be to open Blow-Me-Down Farm to the public and transform its slouching structures with flaking paint into The Cornish Colony History and Art Center. Kendall said the public has signaled its interest in reviving the property into a working arts colony while at the same time preserving its historic integrity.
“We didn’t see those two major thrusts as being mutually exclusive,” Kendall said. “So we tried to blend an opportunity to reflect both of those.”
Focusing first on structure renovation and restoration, the plan calls for installing a new roof and utilities for several of the nine property structures, which include a large red barn, cottage, blacksmith shop and dance hall. Only then would the Parks Service begin shaping the complex into its envisioned purpose.
But the proposal stresses that many of these changes won’t happen, especially not quickly, without funding from sources other than the federal government.
“Implementation of this alternative is strongly dependent upon raising the necessary funds from outside sources and the cultivation of strong partnerships to augment what minimal federal funding is available,” the proposal reads.
If after seven years the necessary funds have not been raised to carry out the proposal’s full design, then the Parks Service would simply revert to its original role as the property’s caretaker and scrap the educational ambitions.
“The plan actually builds a ticking clock into our implementation process,” Kendall said.
Since no specific plans have been designated for the Blow-Me-Down Farm structures, Kendall said there is no way to estimate how much the proposal could cost. Adapting the colony’s main house for an artist or writer-in-residence program is one idea the Park Service is weighing, as well as converting the barn into studio work space or a music venue.
“All the things in the plan can’t happen if federal money is the only driving force,” Kendall said.
He said the Park Service has submitted a request to add Blow-Me-Down Farm to the National Register of Historic Places, the listing of significant historic structures and places in the U.S.
The designation would not change the way the Park Service manages the property, Kendall said, but it would make Blow-Me-Down Farm eligible for federal preservation grants, federal investment tax credits and other incentives.
A picture window to the winding Connecticut River and Mt. Ascutney’s peak, Blow-Me-Down Farm’s nine buildings and artistic spirit holds historical significance for the Upper Valley.
“The Cornish Colony was vital to this area in terms of attracting the artists who helped support the community economically,” MacAdam said. “They’re absolutely extremely important to American art of the period. They are of national importance.”
This new education center could help preserve the Cornish Art Colony’s historic and cultural presence in the area, MacAdam said, by filling the void left by the closure of the Cornish Colony Museum in Windsor.
“I think that would help fill the gap left by the demise of the Cornish Colony Museum,” MacAdam said. “I’m delighted the site is being preserved because it’s an important part of the beginning of the arts colony.”
If after the 30-day public comment period there are no significant objections over the proposal, it will be submitted to the Park Service’s Northeast Regional Director Dennis Reidenbach for final approval. Kendall said they hope to begin implementation by the end of July.
Katie Mettler can be reached at 603-727-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Wednesday, June 12 edition of the Valley News.
Painter and illustrator Maxfield Parrish's first name was incorrect in a story about future plans for Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish in yesterday's Valley News. In addition, the Cornish Colony developed in part from the efforts of Charles Beaman, the owner of the farm and other property, to attract artists such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens to Cornish and Plainfield, starting in the 1880s. The story was unclear on that point.