New Name Suits Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park
The Cornish, New Hampshire home, studios and grounds of American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens were re-designated from a national historic site to the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park. The change took effect when the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act was signed into law on March 12.
The National Park Service uses an organized system of designations to identify units in their portfolio. Per the Park Service’s website, “Usually, a national historic site contains a single historical feature that was directly associated with its subject.” A national historical park extends “beyond single properties or buildings.”
What does the name swap mean for the Saint-Gaudens property? The use remains the same. Instead, the identification brings additional awareness to the historic, artistic and ecological resources. For visitors, there’s clearer understanding that this 190-acre property is comparable to other national parks of similar size and multitude of stories.
In 1965, Congress passed legislation establishing the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. As a smaller National Park Service site, it was still a big deal: the first in the Park Service dedicated to an artist along with a collection of the artist’s work. Besides a stretch of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Saint-Gaudens is New Hampshire’s sole National Park Service unit.
A few years ago, a delegation of champions for re-designation began a legislative effort for change. But who planted the seed with legislators?
“The major push came from a partner organization, the Saint-Gaudens Memorial,” notes Superintendent Rick Kendall of Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park. “Recognizing that the size and scope of the site had changed, they began advocating for the change of designation from a national historic site to a national historical park some five years ago.”
One such champion, former New Hampshire governor and current U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen released a statement, saying, “The re-designation of Saint-Gaudens as a National Historical Park finally recognizes this landmark appropriately for its natural beauty, historical architecture and art.”
Augustus Saint-Gaudens stands as one of America’s most accomplished sculptors of the nineteenth century, whose influential legacy continues and whose work adorns public spaces today.
Born in March 1848 in Dublin, Ireland, that same year Augustus and his Irish mother and French father immigrated to Boston, and then settled in New York City. Later, years of apprenticing and studies in New York and in Europe followed. In 1876, at the age of 28, Saint-Gaudens obtained the first in a succession of major public commissions, the Farragut Monument, in tribute to the Union Navy’s Admiral David Farragut, and in collaboration with architect Stanford White.
A small sampling of the sculptor’s well-known art, as chronicled in John H. Dryfhout’s The Work Of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, includes:
• Standing Lincoln in Chicago
• Diana at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
• Adams Memorial in Washington, D.C.
• Shaw Memorial in Boston
• Sherman Monument in New York City
• Charles S. Parnell Monument in Dublin
• Designs for United States coinage of 1907
“His bold, tawny look of a Renaissance soldier of fortune,” wrote biographer Burke Wilkinson in Uncommon Clay, “his quick sympathy for those who wished to learn from his talent and experience, and more than anything else the great creative talent itself made him a legendary figure.”
From Vacant Rental To National Historical Park
Who could’ve accurately foretold the future, when in April 1885 a married couple of prospective renters in their mid-thirties took a nine-hour train ride from New York City to Cornish?
Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ lawyer Charles Beaman – whom he’d met in Rome and whom owned real estate in Cornish – had offered a vacant inn, built in 1817, to Augustus and his wife, Augusta Homer Saint-Gaudens, as a summer place to live and work comfortably away from the heat of New York City.
Wilkinson brilliantly told of the dichotomous reactions, when the couple went “to see what Beaman had in mind. This turned out to be a one-time tavern called Huggins’ Folly on a highway that never quite got built. The tavern had deteriorated into a brothel and was now empty.” Wilkinson noted Augustus had written in his own Reminiscences, that he initially “was all for fleeing at once and returning to my beloved sidewalks of New York.”
His wife Gussie had an opposite and favorable impression of the place, despite the driving rain; like, the soundness of the brick construction, the hay barn for conversion to a studio, and the view over the Connecticut River of Mount Ascutney in Vermont. They negotiated an acceptable rent, along with the right to make improvements.
The couple renamed the home Aspet, a tribute to Augustus’ father’s birthplace in the south of France. Over time with their architect friends, including Stanford White, they rehabilitated the former tavern and added porches, pergolas and dormers. The 6,500-square-foot home and grounds figured prominently during Saint-Gaudens’ most productive period of his professional life. In 1891, for $2,500 they purchased the house and 22 acres from Beaman.
After Saint-Gaudens’ death in 1907, his wife and son Homer contemplated establishing a museum to protect and preserve his works and estate. In 1919, with a special act of the New Hampshire legislature, the Saint-Gaudens Memorial was incorporated, as an educational and charitable corporation, to exhibit originals and replicas of Saint-Gaudens’ works; to assist in the education of young sculptors, and to foster an appreciation of sculpture.
By 1921, Augusta had donated the buildings and 22 acres to the Memorial. She reserved the use of their house every summer until her passing in 1926. A covenant in her donation required $100,000 be committed to endowment funding to continue the mission of the incorporated Memorial. By 1933, the endowment goal had been met. Meanwhile, the property acreage under ownership had expanded when, in 1930, Beaman’s family donated 61 acres, conserving a scenic entry to Aspet through a stand of white pines.
The nonprofit planned and collaborated in the 1960s to more effectively ensure the preservation of the Saint-Gaudens estate, which culminated in the donation of the property by the Memorial’s trustees to the U.S. Department of the Interior. This move allowed the Memorial to carry out the range of its mandated purposes. In the 1970s, 60 more acres of adjoining lands were added to the National Park Service’s charge.
In 1998, across New Hampshire Route 12A, the Memorial made another key acquisition of 48 acres. The parcel is known as the Blow-Me-Down Farm and home of Charles Beaman. The Memorial preserved the property for 12 years, transferring ownership to the National Park Service in 2010.
The strategic and improvisational assemblage of 190 acres over the past 100 years, following that nine-hour train ride and property showing in 1885, provides a glimpse of the remarkable path taken to become a national historical park.
This year marks the centennial of the founding of the Saint-Gaudens Memorial in 1919. The Memorial and the Park Service will be hosting a series of observances and exhibitions to commemorate the centennial.
“There will be two special exhibitions at the park this summer,” says Kendall. “One will be a historical exhibit on Augusta Saint-Gaudens, her role in founding the Memorial and her artwork. The other will be a retrospective exhibit of artists who have exhibited in the park’s rotating gallery.”