Dispatches from the Hermitage Archives

I’ve been at the Hermitage nearly three years and I still run across letters in our archives that are entirely new to me. Some are rather boring (“Please order more bird seed. Regards, Florence Sloane”) while others are heart-rending snapshots of a particular time in our nation’s turbulent history.

Today I found a good example of the latter; a short note from a soldier’s mother thanking Mrs. Sloane for hosting a party for servicemen at the Hermitage during World War I. Click the images to enlarge and read for yourself (I think reading these types of things in their original hand adds much to the experience).

The onset of the First World War brought about a time of increased prosperity for the Sloane family and the city of Norfolk in general. The Sloane knitting mills worked double time in order to fulfill contracts with the United States Army – William Sloane & Co. provided thousands of soldiers with their standard issue socks and long underwear.

But trade was not the only thing that increased in Norfolk during war time – in 1917, the year the US entered the war, the United States Navy purchased 447 acres of land on Sewell’s Point and established an enormous Naval Base. Soon, the city was filled with thousands of servicemen seeking recreation. Commercial establishments were overrun and there were few outlets for wholesome entertainment.

The Sloanes enjoyed considerable wealth before the war, but the war made them wealthier beyond reckoning. Instead of retreating to the Hermitage and counting their money, Mr. and Mrs. Sloane devoted themselves to aiding the military in whatever way possible. The new military presence in Norfolk was seen as raucous and disruptive by the established families of the city. Many citizens responded negatively to the massive intrusion in their town. Mrs. Sloane responded to this outcry by opening her home.

The Hermitage quickly evolved into more than a summer cottage – it soon became a true country estate capable of entertaining on a grand scale. The Hermitage was open every weekend during the summer for enormous lawn parties where as many as 1,850 servicemen enjoyed music, lawn games, barbecues, and wrestling matches.

Above image: Lawn games pitting English against American troops in… log wrestling? (Any lawn game historians out there want to shed light on this particular pastime?) Note the Hermitage in the background. 

I’m always interested to read letters from the years surrounding WWI because I feel like it was such a watershed time for Mrs. Sloane as both a public figure and as a collector. The War thrust her into civic life during a period when women were only just beginning to assume positions of leadership in their communities (particularly in the South) and she went into it guns blazing and never looked back. Before WWI she contented herself with collecting traditional household goods (silver serveware, English pewter, Japanese export porcelain) and commissioning standard stately portraits of her children by established American painters. After the War her focus shifted significantly and she became interested in modern art. In 1918 she began collecting works by contemporary artists such as Eugene Francis Savage and Giorgio de Chirico. She expanded her home into a public museum and spent the next forty years filling it with thousands of objects from across the globe.

Maybe I am wrong about the influences of WWI, but in 1916 the Hermitage was a five room summer cottage and by 1926 it was a 42-room Arts and Crafts mansion filled with nearly 10,000 objects of fine and decorative art. What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Hermitage Archives

  1. Can I comment on this ancient post? Will anyone ever care? My favorite Florence letter was from that period, when she was in Europe just before the war. She had gone to an ancient spa town, Baden-Baden, and was creeped out nearly to the point of terror. Inimitable Florence! “It’s beautiful, but I don’t care for it.” I probably think about that letter a couple times a year.

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