Mystery in the Bok Room: Blashfield’s Ceiling Murals (1)

For a long time the story went around at the Curtis Institute of Music that the Bok Room’s ceiling murals, painted by Edwin H. Blashfield (1848–1936) were commissioned in 1924 as a gift from George and Mary Drexel to Curtis’s founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok.

Plaque about the Blashfield murals

Plaque about the Blashfield murals

George W. Childs Drexel (1868–1944), owner and editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and his wife Mary Irick Drexel (1868–1948) were the original owners of the mansion on 1726 Locust Street, which Mary Bok purchased in 1924 to house the new music school.

The Blashfield murals may have been a gift, but they were not new. It turns out they have adorned the Drexels’ living room since 1899. So how did this story come about?

A small plaque in the room may have been the source of the story. It reads: “This ceiling painted by Edwin Howland Blashfield is presented to the Curtis Institute by Mr. and Mrs. George W. Childs Drexel in grateful recognition of the interest shown in the Drexel Institute by Cyrus H.K. Curtis.”

Cyrus Curtis by Richard L. Partington, 1926

Cyrus Curtis by Richard L. Partington, 1926

Cyrus H.K. Curtis (1850–1933), father of Curtis’s founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok, owned the Curtis Publishing Company, which published the Ladies Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post among other popular magazines. The “gift” of the ceiling murals may very well have been part of a friendly arrangement. The plaque indicates that Cyrus Curtis may have indirectly helped his daughter purchase the Drexel mansion by supporting the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, founded by George Drexel’s father Anthony J. Drexel in 1891.

Although direct evidence of an arrangement is lacking, documentation in the Drexel University Archives shows that Cyrus Curtis made a $25,000 donation to the school’s endowment fund in 1924, shortly after the school had launched an ambitious $1,000,000 campaign, headed by George Drexel, chairman of the endowment fund campaign and member of the board of trustees. Curtis joined Drexel’s board in the same year, and continued to support the school with many donations, including $600,000 for an engineering building, which was finished in April 1929 and dedicated Curtis Hall.

 

Drexels’ living room with adjoining drawing room, c. 1897

 

The Bok Room’s murals are unique, as they are the only ones Blashfield painted in a private residence that are still in situEdwin Howard Blashfield (1848-1936) had become famous as a muralist after he decorated the dome of the Manufacturers’ and Liberal Arts building at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893. Thereafter his murals adorned courthouses, state capitols, universities, churches, and museums, as well as private residences like the Drexel’s. (For an overview, see  Edwin Howland Blashfield. Master American Muralist, 2009)

The Drexel mansion at 1726 Locust Street, designed by the Boston firm of Peabody and Stearns, was built in 1894, only four years before the Drexels commissioned Blashfield to decorate the ceiling.

 

Coming next—a closer look at the murals themselves. Teaser: There is another mystery to be solved!

 

With thanks to our colleagues at the Drexel University Archives. 

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