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Unraveling the Mystery, continued

The Rochester Connection: Why Brooks Hall is at the University of Virginia 

Having discussed the building and its design in some detail, the question remains as to why Brooks Hall was built at the University of Virginia. How did it come to pass that Charlottesville and the University of Virginia became home to the "world's best cabinets of natural history housed in the modern Brooks Museum"(30) as early as 1877?

The answer, surprisingly, is found in the Third Ward of Rochester, New York, on Fitzhugh Street, where to this day stands two houses designed by none other than John R. Thomas, architect of Brooks Hall.(31)

In the mid-nineteenth century, Rochester was in the midst of a scientific renaissance, and the Third Ward with Fitzhugh Street as its main artery, was a center of that action; "Here on quiet oak-lined streets, lived the city's merchants, bankers, lawyers, judges, and councilmen, fashioning as distinct a society as that of the Back Bay or Murray Hill."(32) The magnet for the intellectual businessmen of the day was one particular resident of Fitzhugh Street, a lawyer who had made a substantial amount of money on railroad investments and mining, and who by 1851 had converted his pioneering study of the American Indians of New York into a landmark publication entitled The League of the Iroquois.

This lawyer was Lewis Henry Morgan, today regarded as the Father of American Anthropology, and the founder of the Anthropology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was in Rochester, New York, between 1851 and 1877 that Morgan wrote The League of the Iroquois, called by John Wesley Powell the first scientific account of an Indian tribe given to the world; Systems of Consanguinity, the first analytical treatment of kinship; and his classic evolutionary thesis, Ancient Society. Morgan's international reputation grew rapidly between 1851 and the 1870s, but he always centered his attentions, and tried out his ideas, in the context of a local Rochester gentleman's club called the Pundit Club. This dub, which Morgan had organized in his home on Fitzhugh Street, was "devoted to scholarly pursuits." The goal of its membership was "to find man's place in a world full of change and new discoveries."(33)

The club followed closely the teachings of geologist Charles Lyell and Harvard's famous natural historian Louis Agassiz, who came to Rochester in 1854 to speak before the group. Morgan was the Pundit Club's link to the broader American scientific community, and the ideas he learned from the scholars he befriended at the early meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science became the substance of the discussions and debates carried on in the Pundit Club's meetings in Morgan's home. In particular, Morgan's biographer, Charles Resek, identified the following among a group of eight who had the greatest influence on Morgan: James Hall, Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, and James Dana. All four of these are among the six names found on the north wall (American) of Brooks Hall--the other two are Audubon and Rogers.

It is now clear that sitting in Morgan's home on many occasions, probably members of the Pundit Club and friends of Lewis Henry Morgan, were none other than Lewis Brooks and Henry Ward. Letters in the Smithsonian Archive (to be described later) confirm these personal ties. Beyond this, however, it is well-documented that on Morgan's ethnographic journeys to the western United States he collected rock specimens for Henry Ward, who became the supplier of geologic specimens for the Brooks Museum. There is little doubt then, that the philanthropic and educational approach to natural history that manifested itself in the construction of Brooks Hall at the University of Virginia was developed in the context of Lewis Henry Morgan's friendship with and influence on Lewis Brooks and Henry Ward in the Pundit Club of Rochester, New York.

Who was Lewis Brooks? At this point we know precious little about the man. He was born in 1794 and died in 1877, just prior to the opening of the museum building that was to bear his name. His death was an event significant enough to gain him an obituary in The New York Times and a followup article reprinted from the Rochester Democrat, which tells us only that he was a peculiar man who was not married, who had no heirs, and who made his fortune as a textile manufacturer.

Who was Henry Ward? Of Henry Ward we know a great deal more. A major figure in the history of American science, Ward grew up in Rochester and became a member of the Pundit Club. Following Louis Agassiz's visit to Rochester in 1854, Ward was taken back to Harvard by the famous professor of natural history and became his prize pupil.(34) Ward would eventually become known as the "museum builder," amassing collections for sale based on at least seven worldwide tours. In 1862 he founded Ward's Natural Science Establishment, which primarily supplied casts and fossils to academic institutions and museums throughout the world.

Ward gained his greatest fame when he won the blue ribbon for a massive exhibition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which department store owner Marshall Field later bought and donated to the City of Chicago as the Chicago Museum of Natural History, or the Field Museum. Ward befriended Buffalo Bill Cody and preserved buffalo heads from his hunting expeditions. He also worked with P. T. Barnum. When Barnum's famous elephant, Jumbo, was killed in a train wreck in Ontario, Canada, Ward and his staff went to the site of the accident to begin preparations for stuffing and mounting the pachyderm.(35) His company survives him and dominates the geological and biological scientific equipment field to this day.

A scholar of great repute, Henry Ward was equally committed to his business ventures in the museum world. He received his training from Agassiz in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, but he was also an entrepreneur in every sense of the word. He recognized that there was a potential fortune to be made in supplying museums with the artifacts and replicas of natural history. As an entrepreneur, he took the risk of accumulating his collections from throughout the world first, and then returning to the United States to sell them to interested museums.

Of course, this business was dependent upon the construction of museums, which in turn was dependent upon the generosity of charitable and philanthropic individuals who were committed to the advancement of natural history education. In the economic depression of the 1870s, such a business venture was possible, but difficult. Anyone attempting to create and maintain such a business had to be a "broker" of unique skill and great perseverance, one who could convince an organization it needed new collections, or perhaps even an entire museum, and at the same time find the individuals who would provide funding for such purchases. Henry Ward was just such a successful broker--but he almost failed. It was his ability to "promote" Brooks Hall, I believe, that saved him and his business concern.

The archives at the Smithsonian Institution contain a series of letters written by Henry Ward to the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, Spencer Baird. These letters tell us a great deal about Henry Ward that is not included in the standard historical summaries of the man's career. A sequence of these letters, plus one other located in the University of Rochester Archives, leads us directly to Brooks Hall.

What these letters reveal is that in 1874, despite his unique mastery both of scientific knowledge and entrepreneurial skill, and despite the success that would ultimately come to him, Henry Ward and his museum supply company were in dire straits. Ward's first contract had been to provide the University of Rochester with some cabinets of natural history. He lost a lot of money on that contract, but it established his reputation, particularly with Lewis Henry Morgan, who then recommended him to other schools and museums. The arrangement with the University of Rochester also concretely linked Henry Ward to Lewis Brooks, who donated some of the money paid to Ward for that collection. Ward's next project was for Vassar College, where he created a cabinet of natural history, but again he lost thousands of dollars in the process. Finally, Allegheny College contracted with him for $15,000.00 worth of material, which Ward delivered only to discover that the University could not meet its debt.(36)

In late 1874, Ward wrote to Assistant Secretary Baird at the Smithsonian seeking work from that Institution. There is a clear measure of desperation in this letter:

If you might send me any skeletons for preparation or any taxidermy the same will be appreciated by one who has felt the brunt of hard times more than would one in almost any other profession. Still I have managed to hold together and to give steady occupation in my establishment to nine employees.... I dread to lose them and thus I look about for work.(37)

It would appear that the Smithsonian could not provide sufficient work for Ward, because two months later he again wrote to Baird:

...on Tuesday my house was sold at auction for $9,000 and yesterday all my collections, buildings, fixtures, and household property followed for $5,000.... The truth is that it is not an easy matter to manage this natural history business that it shall be both genuine and paying. I shall try again, however, and shall invoke the good feelings of all old clients to help me in getting many new ones.(38)

At the same time, Ward was also writing to Lewis Brooks. In these letters he also complained of his financial problems and promoted new museum opportunities. Mr. Brooks, this final blow [the Allegheny College disaster] has fixed my fate as a cabinet maker instead of a teacher and investigator." Ward continued by seeking funds from Brooks for a museum to be built in Rochester.(39) Ward's intent was quite obvious when he wrote to convince Brooks of the need for a natural history museum in Rochester, which he called his long cherished plan:"

But, Mr. Brooks, what hope can I have? How many men are there in Rochester who will consider such a thing - to give S10,000.00 to zoological sciences? But you know sir how few will understand the bearing of the natural sciences on the practical questions of life. There is no one who I can think of in this city who will start this subscription in this way if you will not. For you understand and appreciate the department of natural sciences better than does anyone in our city.(40)

But Ward was to get no support from Brooks for this particular plan.

Meanwhile, Ward had also written to Baird at the Smithsonian about none other than Lewis Brooks. His purpose was dearly to encourage the Smithsonian to cultivate Brooks as a donor, the result of which, of course, would be the generation of business for Ward's museum supply business. This communication also confirms the friendship between Ward, Brooks and Lewis Henry Morgan. Ward wrote to Baird:

One of our city elders is a gentleman of about 70 years by the name of Lewis Brooks. Mr. Brooks is in no active business except to look after real estate, bank stocks, and the like of which he is credited to be worth over a million dollars. He is unmarried with no near relatives. He gives to very few objects, but he is not miserly or penurious. When there - two years ago - was a subscription to my geological cabinet, he signed and paid $5,000.00 toward it. The gift surprised many but since I have known him well I am not surprised at all. Mr. Brooks is without a singular exception the most extensive and assiduous reader of science - cultural and biological -which we have in Rochester. He is a close reader and admirer of Huxley, Spencer, Tyndall, and Darwin and others of that school.

Mr. Brooks has within the last two months asked me concerning the Smithsonian Institution how it is managed, what it is accomplishing, etc.

I hold sincerely the idea that Mr. Brooks would only require a proper presentation of the subject to him to make quite a donation to the fund of your institution. I have judged this from my knowledge of the man, and from the questions which he puts to me about you there. Whether anything will ever come of this may be exceedingly doubtful, but with the views I have of this case it seems to me a great pity that Mr. Brooks cannot meet with someone who - familiar with the subject - would adequately present the Smithsonian to his acquaintance. I will do what I can but I am not strong in such work.

By the way, Mr. Morgan knows Mr. Brooks quite well (though he tells me of late there is a coolness between them), and you might speak to him sometime on this subject if you choose and even mention my name if necessary. But of course there is an institution in this city whose members must not know that I really think that the Smithsonian is doing more for science than they are, and that therefore it should be preferred.

If you come through Rochester let me surely introduce you to Mr. Brooks.(41)

Apparently, the Smithsonian responded with a gift of books to be given to Brooks, but otherwise encouraged Ward to speak to Brooks concerning donations himself. Then, on November 3, 1874, Ward wrote to Baird:

Now I hasten to reply as to the Brooks question. The books came, Morgan's and the reports, for which my best thanks. I shall not at present present the reports as your letter suggested.... I must not go so openly to my mark. If I can induce a first gift from Mr. Brooks to the Smithsonian then the books would come naturally and would tell the story which I wish them to.(42)

Ward further suggested, in great detail, an approach for Baird to take when he finally did come to Rochester to meet with Brooks, but Baird never came.

On December 3, 1874, Ward again wrote to Baird.

Your letter of November 14 came in due time. I read it to Mr. Morgan (without any explanation) and was pleased to hear him say as soon as I closed 'Ward, you must show that letter to Lewis Brooks.' I went to do it and found he was confined to his room for a few days. Then I went to Michigan on business. After this week I hope to be settled in my personal matters and I will undertake the Brooks question.(43)

A few days later, Ward wrote again to Baird, seemingly in frustration: "... I presume gave you an idea of how matters stand in the Brooks question. I consider him an excellent candidate for a large sum for the Smithsonian by continuous, careful, following up. I greatly hope that I can get him to go to Washington with me next summer."(44)

Ward never got Brooks to Washington, Baird never visited Rochester, and Brooks never gave any money to the Smithsonian. On August 17, 1877, Henry Ward wrote one more letter to Spencer Baird in relation to Lewis Brooks:

My good friend Mr. Lewis Brooks is gone. He died on the evening of the 10th, aged 84 years. His death was quite sudden, he having been well and around his room up to the evening before.

I was in New York at the time but came home to attend his funeral on the 11th. All are much surprised that he left no will, or at least none has been found. This is very much unlike him - he was the essence of method and exactitude.

The Virginia University gift - $66,150.00 - has all been paid except $2,500.00 still due to me which I believe is quite safe.

The Washington and Lee University he had given (alike through me) $25,000.00.

To both these institutions as well as to others in the South he was planning additional largesse in the way of improving their appointments for Natural Science purposes.

Unfortunately Mr. Swift of this city - the astronomer - will not now get the powerful telescope which Mr. Brooks has agreed to and all was settled but the payment.

Little is known here of Mr. Brooks' early life. He was born near New Milford, Connecticut in 1793 and came to western New York in 1819. I send you some extracts from Rochester papers which tell the rest.(45)

The difference in the tone of Henry Ward's letters between 1874 and 1877 is dramatic--by 1877 Ward and his company were secure. That difference is explained by yet another letter, from Henry Ward to Lewis Brooks, written from Charlottesville, Virginia, in November 1875:

I have spent many hours at the University of Virginia which is a noble institution in every sense of its history. They [need] here a cabinet of Geology and Zoology.... It is in keeping with their other appointments and they will build a hall. They were going to write me about one but certain state appropriations failed them. They seem much pleased over what was done at Lexington as if it had been for themselves.(46)

Five months after receiving this letter from Ward, Lewis Brooks made his substantial gift of a museum to the University of Virginia as described in the secret letter of April 14, 1876, to Rector Stuart. Henry Ward had finally made the connection he desperately needed. After failing to link the Smithsonian with Lewis Brooks, and after failing to convince Brooks of the need to fund a museum in Rochester, he struck a responsive chord with his description of the situation at the University of Virginia. The terms of Lewis Brooks' gift to the University brought three major effects. The University, of course, received a fine museum and building for the study of natural history; Lewis Brooks found an appropriate outlet for his carefully thought out philanthropic concerns; and Henry Ward and the Ward's Natural History Establishment received a financial reprieve that allowed them to survive.

 

 

 

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