William Morgan: In a N.H. town, an oasis of high artistic creativity

The MacDowell Colony, a 400-acre artists' retreat in the woods in Peterborough, N.H., represents one of the most notable gatherings of creative energy anywhere. It is a refuge, an oasis, a special place where writers, musicians, and all kinds of visual artists, come to create. It provides, its mission statement declares, “an inspiring environment” in which artists can produce “enduring works of the imagination.” Despite its many famous alumni, MacDowell is successful because it is virtually inaccessible to the world beyond.

Artists, ranging in age from 25 to 80, are “here because they want to be,” says the resident director, David Macy. Competition is fierce for a place to work alone all day in the silence of the forest, in sight of Mount Monadnock. One thousand applications are received for just the summer session. The reputation of MacDowell is such that a MacDowell residency bestows an immediate career boost. (MacDowell alumni have garnered 65 Pulitzer Prizes.) The sole criterion for acceptance is artistic excellence.

Since the colony’s founding, in 1907, by composer Edward MacDowell and his pianist wife, Marian, over 8,000 artists have traveled far from New York lofts and ateliers around the globe (a tenth of the residents are from abroad) to make art there. Around 300 colonists come to MacDowell every year, and are blessed with housing, a place to work, good food, and the precious gift of time. Thirty-two studios provide working space from anywhere from two weeks to three months, but the average fellowship is for a month.

  Edward MacDowell's composing cabin.

Edward MacDowell's composing cabin.

Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town, which some call the greatest American play, at the MacDowell. Peterborough was apparently a partial model for the town — called Grover’s Corners in the play. Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland found the quiet to compose here, while MacDowell provided succor and sanctuary to such writers as Willa Cather, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. Were their privacy not so carefully guarded, this demi-Eden might have become a magnet for celebrity watchers.

The colony welcomes the public only one day a year when its awards the MacDowell Medal. Medalists have included Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Mailer, Isamu Noguchi, Merce Cunningham and Stephen Sondhiem, among others. In 1997, the colony itself was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, America’s highest honor for an artist or an art patron.

  One of the musician’s cabins.

One of the musician’s cabins.

A stay at MacDowell can feel a bit like visiting your favorite grandmother on the family farm. This kind of idyll, however, is hard won. Running a community with 30-some residents at all times, an equal number of staff, and a spread out physical plant requires extraordinary management skills. Despite an endowment, millions of dollars need to be raised every year to keep the colony going. Director Macy, who dropped out of biomedical engineering to go to art school, has been the ideal colony shepherd for almost a quarter of a century.

This is a campus like few others. Colony Hall, the administrative hub and center of post-studio social life (residents have breakfast and dinner here, but lunch is delivered to the individual studios), was repurposed from a late 18th-century barn. Concord, N.H., architect Sheldon Pennoyer renovated the building a decade ago to comply with current building codes. Although reminiscent of the main hall at one’s childhood summer camp, no attempt was made to hide the changes or make it overtly rustic. Pennoyer was also responsible for the recent renovation of a hundred-year-old music studio

  Colony Hall.

Colony Hall.

That same frugal but playful spirit infused the other studios, most of which are scattered deep in the woods; some are in outbuildings and barns. The progenitor was small log retreat that Marian built for her ailing husband. After his death in 1908, she began building a series of non-pretentious workspaces. There are painting studios with high ceilings and lots of light, musicians have pianos, and suitable equipment is supplied for sculptors. The emphasis is decidedly woodsy, and the studios have fireplaces and rocking chairs. All display “tombstones,” wooden tablets inscribed with the names and dates of everyone who has worked in that particular studio.

  A tombstone in Alexander studio.

A tombstone in Alexander studio.

The MacDowells, who met while studying in Germany, had a favorite monastery in Switzerland that provided inspiration for most the most impressive studio. The widow of the noted American portrait painter John White Alexander built this stone “chapel” as a gallery. Although impractical as an exhibition hall, it is now a most sought-after studio, with tall ceilings, exposed beams, and a giant north window.

A major part of the work of running MacDowell is maintaining and updating the mostly early 20th-Century studios; they are in constant use, but they also needed to be made more energy- efficient.Ca

A few years ago MacDowell decided “to combine comfortable vernacular forms with architecturally sophisticated ones,” remarks New York University architectural historian and colony board member, Carol Krinsky. Cambridge, Mass., architects Charles Rose and Maryann Thompson designed an interdisciplinary arts studio, but it awaits funding. Calderwood Studio, designed as a writer's haven by Burr and McCallum Architects, of Williamstown, Mass., is a contemporary tribute to its predecessors. Many of the early cottages were built for summer use and have had to be retrofitted for year-round use. So, Calderwood, a writer’s was built, says Macy, “to be indestructible,” with a two-story high living room and a long view across a meadow.

  Calderwood Studio.

Calderwood Studio.

The 1926-28 stone library by the fashionable Boston architects Strickland, Blodget & Law is similar in its memories-of-medieval-Europe-style to the Alexander studio. Its single 1,000 square-foot, timber-trussed room outlived its role as repository for colony archives and residents' manuscripts, scores, and paintings. In 2013, a 3,000-square-foot addition by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects of New York, designers of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Obama Library in Chicago, provided a home for such valuables as a first edition of Willa Cather’s Death Comes For the Archbishop, inscribed to Marian MacDowell. This gem of black Québec granite has been sensitively grafted to the meadow and woods by the equally exceptionable landscape architects, Reed Hilderbrand, of Cambridge, Mass.

Announcing its quiet presence is an outdoor fireplace that stands like an ancient stele, honoring the theme of the studio hearths. The selection committee liked that the design was “both harmonious and deferential to the older building,” Professor Krinsky recalls. It was “beautiful, sturdy outside, calm, light, and expansive inside.”

  Outdoor fireplace, original library and new library.

Outdoor fireplace, original library and new library.


  View from the library.

View from the library.


Like the colony itself, the library wears the names of its famous designers lightly. This maybe one of the handsomest pieces of architecture in New England, but it is modestly tucked away, there to reinforce the MacDowell Colony’s role as an incubator of genius.

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William Morgan is a Providence-based architectural historian and essayist. He conducted an historic resources study of Peterboro in 1971-72, and is the author, among other books, of Monadnock Summer: The Architectural Legacy of Dublin, New Hampshire.