Last weekend my wife and I attended a lecture at the Belle Skinner Music Room of Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke. Next Sunday (February 5) the vocal ensemble Cantabile presents its Tenth Anniversary concert (it debuted in 2002 at Wistariahurst). The following Sunday the Chamber Music Society at Wistariahurst presents the second of a pair of concerts titled Tango! Music and Dance of Latin America in the same Music Room. The museum’s calendar has other concerts, lectures and programs.
This music room is an excellent venue for such programs (I know; my wife has performed there frequently). It was built specifically to house Belle Skinner’s splendid collection of musical instruments which are now the heart of the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments. Skinner collected instruments which would be played, and in 1913 she built the music room to accommodate them and to hold concerts there. One she held during World War I raised $2000 for the relief fund that Ignacy Jan Paderewski, her favorite pianist, had organized for the benefit of refugees. Her interest in such benefits was highly personal; she had been stranded in France for a month at the very beginning of the war.
The architect of the Music Room was Clarence Luce and Skinner charged him to use nothing but the best materials. Her collection included some 80 harpsichords, so the room was designed to carry the sound of the plucked strings to best advantage, resulting in good acoustics for all sorts of small ensembles.
The room was an addition to a house which had an interesting history of its own. It was originally built some 20 miles away from its current location in the section of the town of Williamsburg, Massachusetts which was known as Skinnerville. That name derived from the location of the Skinner Silk factory and the homes of many of its employees. The factory was built by Belle Skinner’s father, William Skinner. It was destroyed in the Mill River flood of May 16, 1874 which leveled the town and several others, killing 139 people. The house suffered only minor damage in the flood, and it was moved to Holyoke, which had offered Skinner a plot of land for a factory as well as another plot (a whole city block) for his home. The new factory became the world’s largest producer of satin linings, and by the time of William Skinner’s death in 1902 (the company had long since been renamed William Skinner & Sons) was doing more than $6 million a year in business. The family fortune derived from this allowed Belle Skinner to travel widely (Japan, China, Egypt, Europe), build her musical instrument collection, support travel and study for students at her alma mater, Vassar, and after the first World War to lead efforts to rebuild devastated towns in France. She was the president of the American Committee of the French relief organizationVillages Libérés and personally oversaw the rebuilding of the village of Hattonchâtel. The grateful French made her the second American recipient (after Edith Wharton) of the Legion d'honneur.
Wistariahurst was donated to the city of Holyoke in 1959 by Belle Skinner’s younger sister, Katherine (known to the family as Kitty), and it is now operated as a museum telling the story of the family, the silk business, and the history of Holyoke. It also hosts art exhibits and many events in the Belle Skinner Music Room. The name of the house derives from the Wisteria vine which covers much of the outside of the house and blooms in May.
In case you're interested, the lecture we attended concerned the Skinner Chapel at the United Congregational Church of Holyoke which will soon celebrate its centennial. Belle and her siblings donated the chapel to the church as a memorial to their parents. My wife, Ann Maggs, has been asked to appear at an event at the chapel in character as Belle Skinner. She has been performing her one-woman play on the life of Belle Skinner at Wistariahurst since 1994.
(Photo: The Belle Skinner Music Room at Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke)