by Susan Frampton
Comment on a Southern lady’s age, and you better be prepared for a lesson in etiquette. That is, unless she is approaching the occasion of a milestone birthday that deems her one of the most interesting and significant gals in town. In that circumstance, she’ll walk you back two hundred years to the day she was born, and dazzle you with stories of her place in history.
As the prestigious art organization prepares to celebrate the 200th birthday of the structure that has served as its headquarters for close to a century, Executive Director Heather Williams, who oversees the workings of the non-profit from her first-floor office, is surrounded by an ever-changing landscape of art. Though the bottle of colorful antacid tablets on her desk could conceivably be a contemporary three-dimensional object d’art, it most likely speaks to the often-hectic responsibilities of managing Augusta’s only independent nonprofit visual arts school and contemporary art gallery.
It is an exciting time for the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art (GHIA), and Williams is elbow deep in preparation for the activities surrounding the fall fundraising event that will mark “Gertie’s” birthday, and encourage donations for preservation efforts to ensure that the building’s future is as remarkable as its past.
The architectural wonder at the corner of Telfair and Button Gwinnett Streets first rose in 1818 to stand in stately glory against Augusta’s skyline. Built by Nicholas Ware, future Augusta Mayor and later Georgia United States Senator, the home’s $40,000 price-tag, an outrageous sum by the day’s standards, instantly earned it the moniker of Ware’s Folly. For passersby, the graceful curve of the stairway leading to the Federal-style mansion’s second-floor entrance, its neoclassical trim, fluted, two-story pilasters, and elegant bay windows offered tantalizing glimpses of its opulence and inspired endless speculation of the elegance behind its doors.
In the early 1930s, the grand home that had witnessed Augusta’s history from its corner seat on Telfair Street had fallen into disrepair when it came to the attention of the Historic American Buildings Survey as one of the finest examples of early 19th-century architecture. Ware’s Folly was photographed and documented in 1936 by the Georgia Institute of Technology and recorded as the Ware-Gardner-Sibley-Clark house. Despite its listing on the National Registry of Historic Places, it was slated for demolition when Olivia Antoinette (Mrs. John) Herbert, a winter colonist from New York, saved the neglected property when she purchased it for $4,000 – a paltry one-tenth of its original cost.
In early January 1937, Mrs. Herbert generously gifted the Augusta Art Club with Ware’s Folly, as a living memorial to her late daughter, Gertrude Herbert Dunn. In addition, her gift underwrote the remarkable residence’s complete renovation and established an endowment for The Gertrude Herbert Memorial Institute of Art.
From its inaugural season, the Institute launched itself as a force to be reckoned with. Under the direction of its first director, Horace Talmage Day, it offered works by artists such as foremost portraitist Gilbert Stuart, the painter of six presidents, whose image of George Washington still adorns the one-dollar bill, Rembrandt Peale, Carl Brandt, and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. In the ensuing years, from John Singer Sargent to Mary Cassatt, to Walt Disney and graffiti artist Brett Cook-Dizney, GHIA’s repertoire has grown to include works by a virtual Who’s Who of renowned artists.
The facility hosts six big contemporary art showings each year featuring both local and national artists in the second floor Main Gallery. Williams notes, “The contemporary art provides a nice juxtaposition with the historic space.”
The preservation and maintenance of a historic space like Ware’s Folly is an endless endeavor, and painting a realistic portrait of the grand lady’s future requires more than the occasional touch-up to her lovely face. The focus of the organization’s current fundraising efforts centers around a non-glamorous, but vitally necessary evaluation of the roof and gutter systems to identify, contain and repair leaks, electrical upgrades, and a complete assessment of the elevator system for repair or replacement.
For the 14th year, this November’s Oysters on Telfair, held in the gardens of Ware’s Folly offers the opportunity for those who are interested in history, architecture, the arts, and GHIA’s mission to come together to honor the organization. Williams hopes that this year’s special 200th birthday celebration will bring a new awareness to all Augustans, and a justifiable pride in the extraordinary past of one of its most historic landmarks. There is no doubt that a deeper understanding and appreciation for the accomplishments of its remarkable arts organization will help to ensure that the legacy of the grand lady of Telfair Street will live on in Augusta.