SHELBURNE — Every good summer etches at least one precise experience into the otherwise smoky surface of our sense memories, maybe more if you’re a child. Thirty seconds, maybe five minutes, of heightened awareness.
This summer that experience arrived for me in two installments, two hours apart, on the second of three days I spent at the Brick House on the shores of Lake Champlain.
Maintained and operated by the nearby Shelburne Museum, the Brick House is the Colonial Revival retreat where its founder, the visionary Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), let her idea for a museum incubate. Restored to something very close to its Webb-era condition, it’s an extraordinary place — 40 rooms, each arrayed with lamps, rugs, teapots, pewter vessels, period wallpapers, framed horseshoes, bronze owls, dinner sets, embroidery, silhouette portraits, and sundry Americana — in a setting as serene and idyllic as any I’ve been in. (I paid to stay there, but it is not a hotel. Tours of the house are given twice a year.)
Having snooped my solitary way around the house, then hunched over my laptop for several hours in a second-floor sunroom just off Webb’s bedroom, I was eager to get outdoors. It was early evening, still bright and hot. I donned swimmers and carried my towel down through an open field humming with heat to the shore of the lake.
I swam. (Surprising silken intimacy of mud underfoot!) I dried off and began to wander back across the meadow and up the hill. Off to my left, the sky looked freshly bruised.
And then, halfway back, a loud shaking sound, as of distantly clattering spears, reached me from the field’s bosky border, 800 feet away. Hard rain had hit that small patch of hardwood forest; and now, as the thundering sky turned mountainous and purple, it hit me. Lightning carved up the sky.
Euphoric, I virtually skipped back to the house. Two hours later, I sat working again in the sunroom, sealed off from the roiling storm by wire netting and a lightbulb that transformed the field outside into a pitchy void. Darkened rooms slumbered behind me. And then, an animal sound — half-snort, half-wheeze, improbably loud and close — punctured the storm racket, now here, now there, as if the creature were running frantically along a fence line it wanted to break through. The lightning revealed the field in spastic flashes — it streaked away half the night — but never illuminated the beast.
. . .
Electra was the youngest child of Henry O. Havemeyer, the sugar baron, and his wife, Louisine, who was a friend of the artist Mary Cassatt. The Havemeyers, and particularly Louisine, made multiple trips to Europe and together compiled a great collection of European art, especially French Impressionism. (Most of it is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)
In 1910, Electra married James Watson Webb, an heir to the Vanderbilt industrial fortune. His parents, Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb, had transformed a series of lakeside farms here into a model agricultural estate. The landscaping, which still induces sighs of spiritual consolation today, was overseen by Frederick Law Olmsted. Four buildings — three of them vast barns — were designed by the architect Robert H. Robertson.
By 1910, the farm was struggling, its ambitions shrinking. As a wedding gift, the Webbs received the Brick House at the southern end of the estate.
It was merely a farmhouse at the time. But over the following decade, Webb enlarged and transformed it into a splendid country retreat, to be approached down a shady gravel avenue, just beyond the family cemetery.
At first, the home was used primarily as a base for fox hunting. But when Webb began to form her prodigious, eclectic collection — her first acquisition, which stands in a hallway in the Brick House today, was a cigar store figure — she used its rooms as a kind of laboratory, toying with combinations of early American furniture, historic wallpaper, English ceramics, and a medley of folk, fine, and decorative arts. The long experiment she conducted, more frenzied and inspired by the year, ignited her desire to found a museum, which she did in 1947.
Shelburne Museum, spread over a 45-acre campus and famous for its charming, domestic-scaled landscaping, enchants almost everyone who comes here. It features 25 historic, vernacular buildings — barns, meetinghouse, schoolhouse, general store and apothecary, Shaker shed, blacksmith shop, jail, covered bridge, and functioning carousel. There is also the Ticonderoga, a massive 220-foot steamboat, which — like the other buildings, though with considerably more difficulty — Webb had transported here.
The buildings all groan with her marvelous, thrillingly dotty (though in retrospect, sage and far-sighted) collections of pewter, weather vanes, quilts, ceramics, tools, toys, circus paraphernalia, posters, decoys, dolls, carriages, firearms, trade signs, and much more — over 150,000 works, almost all on display.
The campus also includes a re-creation of part of the Havemeyers’ 1930s Park Avenue (Manhattan) apartment. Its walls are adorned with superb paintings and pastels by Manet, Monet, Corot, Cassatt, and Degas.
Visitors this year will also notice a new building, the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, designed by Boston-based Ann Beha Architects. Unlike the rest of the museum, which closes in the colder months, the center will stay open year-round. It will host temporary exhibitions and selections from the permanent collection.
The inaugural display, an ambitious show called “Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale: The Best of Shelburne Museum,” opens Aug. 18. (The title describes Webb’s four guiding principles as a collector.) For many first-time visitors, the surprise and scale of the museum can be overwhelming. This show should offer a great chance for them to get their heads around Webb’s very personal vision. (A related symposium, “Collecting With a Vision: Shelburne Museum and the Emergence of the Americana Movement,” will take place on Saturday, Oct. 5.)
. . .
I first visited the museum with my family two years ago. That year, on a friend’s advice, we stayed at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. This stately building, on a raised promontory overlooking Lake Champlain, was once the country home of Webb’s in-laws. It was salvaged from its run-down state and converted into a hotel in 1985-86, and opened for business the following year.
To stay in one of its 24 guest rooms (it also has four guest cottages and a fine restaurant opening onto a lawn and recently restored formal gardens) is to experience a place of poignant natural beauty melding mountains, meadows, and lake, steeped in history, at once sumptuous, leisurely, and deeply affecting.
The inn is run by Shelburne Farms, which — despite the common family history — is separate from Shelburne Museum, although both are nonprofits with an educational mission. Shelburne Farms, which is supported by foundations and charitable contributions, aims “to cultivate change for a sustainable future.”
It’s a place of practical, unharried idealism. Working with schools and educators across Vermont and well beyond, Shelburne Farms tries (although with its natural assets, you would think it hardly needs to try) to instill in visitors — especially young visitors — a deep connection with the land, in the belief that this will foster a culture of sustainability that spreads far beyond here.
The 1,400-acre working farm manages 400 acres of northern hardwood stands, a seven-acre mixed vegetable and flower garden, and a dairy farm and artisanal cheese-making facility. It raises crops, and produces meat and eggs from pasture-raised animals. It also boasts 10 miles of picturesque walking trails, and hosts field trips and summer camps. The property became a National Historic Landmark in 2001.
The story of how, in 1972, the adult great-grandchildren of William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb banded together to establish Shelburne Farms as a nonprofit organization and resuscitate the property is a tale too long to tell here. But it is very inspiring.
It may all have derived from an elite, fabulously wealthy couple of families, but there’s something about the scope of what Shelburne Farms and Shelburne Museum offer today that almost guarantees surprises. It might be a circus poster, an item of scrimshaw, a solitary stretch of road, the unexpected sight of a deer, or pollen drifting around you as you swim in Lake Champlain. But give it a few hours or days, and new sights and experiences are sure to find their way into your soul.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.