The Woodmere Museum of Art on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill has received a $10 million gift from the Maguire Foundation, which will enable the total renovation of a nearby historic estate acquired just a few months ago into a grand gallery and a classroom space for the museum.
The mansion, formerly a residence owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph and called St. Michael’s Hall, will be completely renovated and renamed Frances M. Maguire Hall for Art and Education.
William Valerio, director and managing director of Woodmere, called the donation and the renovation project he will fully fund “transformative” for the museum.
The $10 million is the largest donation in Woodmere’s history, he said.
“It’s a huge, huge transformative thing for Woodmere and for everyone involved and for the artists in Philadelphia and for Philadelphia, so I’m really excited about it,” Valerio said Tuesday.
“The main point to make here is that Woodmere’s collection is one of the great collections of American art, and it has been prominent here for some time,” Valerio continued. “It just never had the exposure to be recognized as an important collection. What this does for Woodmere is that it puts it on the map of national museums of American art to be reckoned with and considered distinct.
Frances M. Maguire was a well-known Chestnut Hill artist and patron who, along with her husband, James J. Maguire, established the Maguire Foundation. She served on the Woodmere board for several years and died in 2020.
The Woodmere Collection comprises approximately 9,500 works of art, with particular strength in the work of Violet Oakley, the Red Rose Girls (Oakley, Jessie Wilcox Smith and Elizabeth Shippen Green) and Arthur B. Carles and his circle of painters and engravers. More recently, the museum has built up its collections of contemporary Philadelphia artists as well as artists of color.
“Philadelphia has one of the great histories of art in America since the 18th century and that’s what it’s all about,” Valerio said, but the museum, which occupies a former Victorian mansion a few houses down of his new property, never had the space to properly display the collection, he said.
James Alexandre, chairman of Woodmere’s board of directors, called the gift a “signature moment, not just for Woodmere but for Philadelphia and its community of artists.”
Most of the 17,000 square feet of space contained in what will be Maguire Hall will serve as galleries and public spaces. It will also contain the museum’s new Love Kids art center, which Valerio has dubbed “a game changer,” expanding the museum’s ability to offer programs for schoolchildren and families.
Valerio said the goal is for the building to be fully renovated and in use by the end of 2024.
“We hope to have our permits by December or January at the latest and we expect a year and a half of construction,” he said.
Woodmere first learned in March 2021 that the Sisters of St. Joseph, owners of St. Michael’s Hall, intended to sell it. With development potential on the doorstep of a spacious, leafy four-acre plot, the museum rallied its Chestnut Hill neighbors, garnering community support and contributions, enabling its purchase for $2.5 million in October. 2021.
Maguire Hall was originally built in 1854 as a country estate for the family of Maria Louisa Farr Trotter and William Henry Trotter, an importer of steel, copper and tin. In the 1890s, the house was remodeled by sugar merchant Alfred C. Harrison, working with Cope and Stewardson, a distinguished Philadelphia firm at the time.
For the Maguire Hall project, the lead architect will be Matthew Baird Architects of New York. Baird will work in partnership with Krieger + Associates Architects and Andropogon Associates, the landscape architects.
“For Woodmere, collecting has always been in the dark, it’s always been something taken for granted,” Valerio said. “Woodmere was defined by its building, by that tall Victorian tower in Chestnut Hill. It was not defined by its collection as the Philadelphia Museum of Art is defined by Marcel Duchamp and defined by Thomas Eakins…
“For Woodmere, we are Violet Oakley, we are Arthur B. Carles. We are Edith Neff. We are Larry Day. We are the multicultural spectrum of contemporary art in Philadelphia today.
Maguire Hall will have “galleries dedicated to Philadelphia, contemporary artists, and will be the only museum in the city of Philadelphia to have that,” he said. “You know, it’s incredibly exciting.”