- Historic Sites
Electra Webb And Her American Past
How a brave and gifted woman defied her parents and her background to create the splendid collection that is Shelburne
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Shortly after Mrs. Webb bought a house for her future museum, a stroke of fortune completely altered her modest little plans. Her brother-in-law, Vanderbilt Webb, having inherited the 110room house on Lake Champlain, decided to get rid of the old carriages and sleighs, most of them still neatly lined up in the enormous coach house. Of course Seward Webb had a turnout for every conceivable occasion, condition, or circumstance, from a double buckboard for transporting hunting parties to a glistening black Berlin for occasions of state, in addition to a slew of gigs, phaetons, and sleighs plain and fancy. “I couldn’t bear to have these carriages go,” Mrs. Webb recalled. “So I said, ‘Would you consider giving them to me if I had a little piece of property and kept them in Shelburne?’ ” The Vanderbilt Webbs agreed. Her husband, too, gave his wholehearted approval. Since Mrs. Webb decided to house the carriages in a historically appropriate building (an immense horseshoe barn, as it turned out), what her kinfolk were agreeing to, in effect, was the creation of an outdoor museum—a collection of fine old things housed in a variety of historically interesting buildings. The agreement “was the spark that lit the fire and I had my opening. And that was the start of the Shelburne Museum,” explained Mrs. Webb to her Williamsburg audience in 1957. Given the carriages and (what was far more important) her family’s tacit approval, “from then on there was no holding me.”
From then on, too, Electra Havemeyer Webb ceased to be a collector of folk art amusing herself. Of necessity she had to become a connoisseur of old Vermont farmhouses, barns, schools, churches, bridges, and paddle wheelers. Since most of the structures had to be carefully dismantled, transported, and reassembled at Shelburne, she had to become, too, a sort of supervisory engineer of some tricky feats of restoration. Since she and her husband continued to shoot grouse in Scotland in late summer and to spend autumn in New York and winter hunting quail in South Carolina, she also had to become the effective absentee leader of a pretty crusty band of Vermont carpenters, masons, and laborers. How well she won their loyalty is attested by an incongruous building that has stood for almost two decades on the Shelburne Museum lawn. It is a U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse that crowned Lake Champlain’s Colchester Reef from 1871 to 1952, when Mrs. Webb boldly bought the condemned structure. In the teeth of high winds, lake storms, poor moorings, and the indomitable strength of an old-time U.S. lighthouse, five of Mrs. Webb’s employees, unbidden, risked life and limb for twenty-six days to bring the Colchester Reef Lighthouse piece by piece to shore. It now stands near its old Lake Champlain companion, the S.S. Ticonderoga , which took eight months of even more taxing labor—as well as two hundred and fifty thousand dollars of Mrs. Webb’s money —to haul almost two miles overland from the lake to the museum.
Mrs. Webb also had to become, willy-nilly, something of a landscape architect. The landscaping problem was how to arrange in some order an extreme diversity of buildings when the one kind of order you do not want is that of a pseudo-historical village. Feeling out of her depth, Mrs. Webb called on the services of a distinguished Long Island estate architect to draw up plans for the museum. The landscape architect had gotten to the model-building stage when Mrs. Webb decided that his plan was fundamentally wrong. The formality of a Long Island estate, she concluded, was too pompous for the modest, weather-beaten structures she was rapidly collecting. I asked an old-timer who it was who had thought of the wonderfully simple solution of distributing the buildings informally around a pleasant and utterly nonhistorical lawn. He told me it was Mrs. Webb herself, true to her instinct for candor and simplicity. For landscaping decisions she relied on a man named Duncan Munro, who had been second gardener at Mrs. Webb’s Westbury estate; Mrs. Webb had detected Munro’s considerable artistic gifts. As the Vermont historian Ralph Nading Hill said of Mrs. Webb, “She was a collector of people as well as things.”
Most of all, Mrs. Webb had to be a patient diplomat. The Webb clan, by far the richest people in the area—in it but not of it—had always been the object of local suspicion. During the early years of the museum, elected officials put numerous obstacles in Mrs. Webb’s way. The homecoming World War II veterans were particularly antagonistic, recalls Bob Francis, the handyman-as-genius (another of Mrs. Webb’s finds) who has executed almost all the restorations in Shelburne from the first in late 1946 until the present day. “Many’s the time I’d have to bite my tongue,” he told me, listening to friends and neighbors angrily demanding to know why a rich old lady was buying up old houses instead of building new ones for returning GI ‘s. ” ‘Those old buildings won’t last ten years, they d say. Francis smiled at the notion. Having taken them apart and put them together again, he knew better than anyone that, even burdened with a hundred-year handicap, a stout Vermont farmhouse with its huge handhewn beams would still outlast the average jerry-built post-World War II dwelling.