A hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge is neither lush nor densely wooded. The landscape starts to dry out dramatically around Hood River, and by the time you reach Maryhill, on the Washington side of the river, golden grasslands reminiscent of California roll to the very edge of the deep black gorge. Today the bluffs are home to wind farms and vineyards, but this stretch of the gorge still feels remote. Workaday towns such as The Dalles and hamlets such as Goldendale and Lyle seem to have little in common with trendy Portland or Hood River. When I was there last year, fierce winds roared through the gorge, and clouds hid the distant peaks of the Cascades.
All the more surprising, then, to find a Neoclassical mansion of warm buff stone, where glossy peacocks strut across green lawns, and spreading trees shelter flower beds and contemporary sculpture, hundreds of feet above the river. The biography of the mansion’s builder is entitled “The Prince of Nowhere” and the house itself was dubbed Castle Nowhere. This is the Maryhill Museum of Art.
I first heard of Maryhill when I came across a book on the Théâtre de la Mode. I was doing research on the New Look, the wasp-waisted retro-Victorian style that emerged in the later forties as fashion’s riposte to wartime austerity.
The story of the Théâtre de la Mode is as follows: As the Second World War drew to a close, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture – the Parisian fashion industry’s chamber of commerce — sought to reignite international consumers’ desire for French luxuries. The result was a touring exhibition of 27” tall wire mannequins, dressed in couture outfits made from scraps of luxury material that had managed to survive the war, posed in theatrical sets made by artists such as Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard. After touring Europe, Great Britain, and the United States, the “little ambassadors” landed first in the basement of the City of Paris department store in San Francisco, and eventually in Maryhill.
The Théâtre de la Mode has its permanent home on an upper floor of the museum. The tiny wire figures, with their colorless porcelain faces, are ghostly little presences, despite their finery, and their settings – opera houses and ballrooms, columned cityscapes, leafy parks and fantastical gardens — are like an artful mirage of the Europe destroyed by the war. The war erupts into view in Cocteau’s surrealist scene, “Ma Femme est une Sorcière,” (recreated for the museum by Anne Surgers). Mannequins in pale satins and gauzy tulle pose in a lofty attic whose roof has been torn open as if by an air raid, revealing a black and white cityscape seen as if from the angle of a pilot. It is as if Miss Havisham of Great Expectations has hosted Eva Braun’s final dance party in Downfall. Lower floors display, among other things: furnishings made for (and in some cases possibly designed by) Queen Marie of Romania, covered in gold leaf and richly decorated in a sort of folkloric Art-Nouveau style; an extensive collection of Native American art and artifacts; an exhibit on the life of Loïe Fuller, the dancer – born Marie Louise Fuller, of Fullersburg, Illinois — whose performances, using state-of-the-art lighting and stagecraft, mesmerized the intelligentsia of 1890s Paris (just think of her as the Lady Gaga of her day); and, last but not least, a collection of sketches and models by Fuller’s good friend, Auguste Rodin.
How on earth did these diverse and improbable collections end up in this most improbable of locations? It seems that Fuller, Queen Marie of Romania, and Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, heiress to a San Francisco sugar fortune and patroness of the arts, were all personal friends of Samuel Hill, the builder of Maryhill. The eccentric Hill, lawyer, entrepreneur, and the son-in-law of a railroad tycoon intended “Castle Nowhere” as his home, seat of a model agricultural community, but made it instead into a museum at Fuller’s urging. Queen Marie of Rumania came west to dedicate the building in 1926, and Spreckels oversaw the early growth of the museum after Hill’s death.
Lavish, eccentric, and beautifully maintained, the museum reminded me of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but with a west coast gloss, and a grand and rugged western setting. I encourage anyone traveling the gorge east of Portland to discover it.