Sitting on a bench beneath an enormous 70-year-old magnolia tree in Norfolk, Va., I gazed across the waters of the Lafayette River. The huge cranes and derricks of busy Portsmouth and Norfolk harbors dominated the far shore. When the tree whose shade I was enjoying was planted, though, the view would have been far different, more bucolic, with tree-lined banks, extensive wetlands and sandy strands.
Behind me, the rambling Hermitage Museum has undergone an equally impressive transformation.
Originally a five-room summer residence built for William and Florence Sloane in 1908, the house over the years was added to, remodeled and literally turned 90 degrees to accommodate the growing art collection of Florence Sloane, a transplanted New Yorker who came to Norfolk with her husband, who owned several nearby knitting mills. The house eventually became the family home, where the Sloanes raised their two sons. Today, the mansion contains one of the finest Asian art collections in the Southeast, as well as American impressionist paintings and a sculpture collection.
“It’s a hidden gem,” said curator Colin Brady, who greeted my wife, Carol, and me at the front door on our recent visit.
We’d just driven up the entrance road that winds through the estate’s 12 acres of gardens, walks, woods and fields in a residential area of Norfolk. The drive gave us a sense of the place. The house is a 42-room Arts and Crafts structure built in the Tudor style, with Gothic- and Tudor-inspired rooms. In addition to the museum and gardens, the estate includes a Visual Arts Studio, where art courses and workshops are available to the public, and a Studio Artist Cottage, offering studio space to guest artists.
Florence Sloane’s collection, which spans 5,000 years of art, started in 1901 with her sister’s gift of a Japanese bowl. For the next 50 years, Florence would dedicate her life to the thoughtful acquisition of art, showcasing it in her ever-expanding and evolving home. And that collection remains here today, complete under one roof.
Brady took us first to the drawing room, done in Gothic revival style, with a hand-carved rood screen and a pipe organ, a Steinway piano and the family silver. Built in Philadelphia in 1922 and transported to Norfolk by rail, the room felt like something out of Elizabethan times with its oak paneling, half-beam ceiling, plaster walls and walnut floor. “Mrs. Sloane wanted her house to be 500 years older than it actually was,” Brady said. And that’s certainly the feeling it conveys.
Evidence of Florence Sloane is everywhere. A handle placed unusually low on the drawing room door tells a story of its own. Standing only 4 feet 10 inches, Florence required latches that corresponded to her height. In the large painting of her with her Russian wolfhound, Zonoza, that hangs in the central gallery downstairs, the artist rendered the dog shorter than it really was so as not to accentuate Mrs. Sloane’s diminutive stature.
The dining room is a hand-carved wood masterpiece. Artisan Charles Woodsend took three years to construct this room, which felt to me like the interior of a wooden sailing ship. The walls and ceiling are hand-cut wood. The large wooden table and other furniture are also hand-carved. A blue Persian carpet designed by Sloane graces the floor.
The great hall contains the bulk of her Asian collection, including Zhou Dynasty bronzes and lead vessels, Shang Dynasty drinking vessels, a delightful 19th-century kingfisher headdress made with actual feathers, a Qing incense burner, cinnabar lacquer and Neolithic jade. I particularly liked the terra cotta “pillow.” This hollow rectangular box was really a neck rest, allowing the sleeper to keep her head elevated so that neatly dressed hair wouldn’t be disturbed during sleep. A hole in the side allowed hot water to be inserted to relax the neck muscles. “You would rest it just below your hairline against your neck,” Brady told us.
Florence Sloane befriended American impressionist painter Helen Turner and sculptor Harriet Frishmuth. She would visit them in the studio they shared in New York, commissioning and buying works. In fact, the Hermitage has the world’s largest collection of Turner’s paintings, drawings and notes. In the painting gallery, we looked at Turner’s “Alice in Wonderland,” a lounging female figure reading a book on a couch, done in lovely shades of orange and yellow. Perhaps the most famous work in the collection is not a Turner, but Edward Poynter’s 1902 painting “Cave of the Storm Nymphs,” showing three naked sirens luring a ship to its destruction.
The west gallery upstairs features an exhibit of Frishmuth bronzes, sleek figures that exhibit the flowing grace of the human form.
Ironically, the biggest draw to the Hermitage are the outside grounds. Visitors flock to the gardens and walks, which are open to the public for free. There are concerts and plays on the grounds throughout the year, and the locale, with its sweeping views of the Lafayette River, is the site of many weddings.
A rose garden contains varieties that Mrs. Sloane planted, such as Red Radiance and Ophelia. During our visit, of course, the gardens were deep in their winter slumber. But in spring and summer, the East Garden will bloom with viburnums, lilacs, daffodils, tulips, irises and peonies.
The Hermitage is also actively engaged in wetlands preservation. Though I could only imagine the coming gardens, the wetlands were delightful, full of native grasses planted just a few years ago in an attempt to restore lands that have been lost due to development and destructive storms.
It was a sign that transformations aren’t just about the future.
Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.