Feature > A Home Away from Home for Artists

For more than one hundred years, the MacDowell Colony has served as a rural retreat for artists looking to step outside the daily rhythms of their regular lives for a short while and to focus on their work. Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather, Leonard Bernstein, Jules Feiffer and Virgil Thomson are but a very few of the more than 5,500 creative individuals (sixty-five Pulitzer-Prize winners) who have come to the Peterborough colony in the last century to enjoy an atmosphere specially designed for artists. MacDowell offers a unique blend of privacy and community: Colonists take breakfast and dinner together at Colony Hall, a converted 1800s barn on the property, but have lunch brought to them in their private studios. Except on rare occasions, including the annual Medal Day in summer, the colony is closed to the public.
Today the MacDowell Colony is a National Historic Landmark and the recipient of a National Medal of Arts. Thirty-two studios and a number of other buildings on 450 acres provide shelter and solace for a year-round, ever-changing array of painters, writers, composers, filmmakers and other artists.

At its beginning, however, the future colony was not much more than a farmhouse and a few outbuildings purchased as a summer getaway for a couple from Boston. In 1896, Marian MacDowell, wife of composer Edward MacDowell, bought a 1780s farmhouse called Hillcrest on seventy-five acres in the western part of Peterborough. At the time, the MacDowells didn’t have a grand scheme to create an artists colony that would go on to become perhaps the foremost of its kind in this country. But the couple enjoyed the company of other artists, and Edward, in particular, knew how artists from different disciplines can enrich each other. So gradually, the idea of creating an artists’ environment on the property was born.

The MacDowells spent every summer at Hillcrest until Edward’s death in 1908, before which they had already begun taking in colonists. From then until her death in 1956, Marian campaigned for the colony, traveling around the country giving lectures and recitals to raise money and support.

The Hillcrest Home

So if Colony Hall, with its communal living and dining areas, is the heart of the colony —“the social space,” as MacDowell Colony Communications Director Brendan Tapley puts it—then the center-chimney Cape with connected barn that Marian bought represents the start of the colony.

According to MacDowell Colony records, the house today is not terribly altered from when the MacDowells occupied it. It consists of the original farmhouse and two wings the couple added.

The music room is the only one in the house that generally is open to the public, and even it is open only once a year, on Medal Day, when the colony awards a medal to an American creative artist whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the national culture. This dark-paneled room is built from wood harvested on the property, and decorated with a heavy goldand- rust embossed Japanese wallpaper that Edward is said to have installed himself.

For a few days last October, to help mark the centennial anniversary of the colony, the public was offered the rare chance to see some of the other rooms of the house. In 2007, Hillcrest served as the Peterborough Historical Society’s Holiday House. The society’s biannual event features a historic house in which a variety of designers each decorates a particular room for a holiday. While there weren’t any home occupants to cope with at Hillcrest, the weight of history exerted a pressure of its own, according to Michelle Stahl, the society’s executive director. “It was really exciting but also a little intimidating,” says Stahl. “You still had a sense of the powerhouse that was Marian MacDowell.”

Visitors to Holiday House 2007 saw a Mother’s Day tea on the screened porch, an herb harvest in the mudroom, a country Thanksgiving in the kitchen of the original farmhouse and Christmas-themed rooms upstairs.

Of all the rooms in the house, says Tapley, his favorite is the living room (even though the music room is the most famous and packs the most visual punch). The living room has coffered ceilings, windows with many small panes and a fireplace surrounded by antique blue-and-white tiles. The effect is airy, a cross between country and sophisticated. “It gets a lot of light, and is homey and cozy,” he says. “It’s a place where you could sit for a long time.”

Public and Private Space at MacDowell

Lately Tapley and communications associate Karen Sampson have gotten to know Hillcrest a bit better; they have been working out of the house during the renovations to Colony Hall, the usual administrative headquarters. Colony Hall was converted from a barn to a community center for the colonists starting in 1913. While Marian requested Colony Hall be in the Colonial Revival style, it has ended up with a style of its own—maybe because of its function more than its form. “It’s everybody’s favorite,” says Tapley. “It’s important, when you’re working in solitude, to have that kind of community and connection available to you.”

In fact, solitude is one of the most special aspects of the colony: The studios, for the most part, are situated some distance from each other. Each is different, and some are works of art on their own. Among the most famous are Schelling, also called the Bark Studio; the John W. Alexander Studio; and Calderwood. Schelling was built in 1907-1908 and sided with pine bark. The building was recently restored, according to Sampson, a job that required more than a bit of effort. “They had to analyze the bark,” she said, in order to reconstruct how it was prepared and applied. The Alexander Studio, dating from 1916-1922, is a replica of a seventeenth-century stone chapel in SaasFee, Switzerland. Calderwood is among the newest of the studios, built after the turn of the millennium. It has a stained-wood and painted-trim structure, and stands at the edge of an open field. According to Sampson, artists may request certain studios (pending availability), but some studios are designed for certain disciplines. For example, painters’ studios have the north light.