Historical Highlight: Mrs. Hamilton’s Carriage House

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

There are three small faded black and white photographs in the archives of the Walter E. Helmke Library at PFW that record a colorful bit of Fort Wayne history. Each, roughly 4 by 3 inches, shows a different view of the same rustic room filled with miscellaneous bits and pieces – mismatched chairs, a couple of small art easels, a ceramic jug, a spinning wheel, plaster statues, and lots of sketches pinned to the walls.  One of these murky photographs shows two women at easels, their hair pinned back in loose chignons; one wears a smock over her floor-length dress.  There is a still-life in process on one of the easels, the artist sits before it on a stool with her palette in hand, and the other woman peers over the student’s right shoulder at the painting.  On the back of this photograph is written, “about 1897” and the names of the two women–Mrs. Winifred Randall, student, and her teacher, Miss Hollensleben–and the setting, the Hamilton Carriage House Studio.

hamilton carriage house
Student and Teacher. Photographer Unknown, Mrs. Winifred Randall and Miss Hollensleben at the Hamilton Carriage House Studio, about 1897, photograph. Courtesy of Purdue University Fort Wayne.

So why include this obscure photograph in the FWMoA blog?  It all makes sense when you learn that these curious images recorded some of the very early history of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.  The Hamilton Carriage House was just one of the stops on our convoluted path.

It was 1888 when Clara Wolfe Bell, young wife of a prominent attorney and aspiring politician, persuaded John Ottis Adams to travel weekly to Fort Wayne from Muncie to take charge of a painting and sketching class in a second-floor room at the southwest corner of Calhoun and Wayne Streets.  Adams had recently returned to Muncie after seven years of formal art training in Germany and had just launched the Muncie Art School. Clara Bell’s niece, Winifred Brady, was one of Adams’ students at this newly formed school, and would later become his wife! In 1889, Adams, busy with the Muncie Art School, offered the Fort Wayne teaching assignment to his colleague, William Forsyth, also fresh from an art education in Germany. Forsyth accepted and began his weekly trek to the Hamilton Carriage House.

One can’t study much Fort Wayne history without coming across multiple references to the Hamilton family, as its generations left indelible marks on this city from the 1820s when the first young Hamiltons arrived. Much of the generous, community-minded culture of this family can be traced to its matriarch, Emerine, whose first Fort Wayne home as a young bride was the old garrison. Having arrived in this newly platted city, Emerine proceeded to start a lending library, helped found several church congregations, was involved in the suffragette movement, and started her family which later occupied a large compound of multiple houses, outbuildings, and acreage on Lewis Street. It was the carriage house on Lewis Street that was given for the art classes in 1892.  And it was Emerine’s granddaughters and other devoted citizens who saw to it that Fort Wayne sustained its own lively arts culture.

Forsyth was the first to teach in the carriage house, where he continued until 1893. A year later, both Forsyth and Adams would receive much acclaim, along with T.C. Steele, Otto Stark, and Richard Gruelle for their Chicago exhibition of landscape paintings that inspired the name, “The Hoosier Group”.

The Hamilton sisters took over teaching until 1897 when Ottilia Hollensleben, a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute, was recruited. It is her that we see in the old snapshot with her student, Winifred Randall. Much transpired in the following years–location changes, financial struggles, a parade of personnel–but the school remained.  Mr. Thieme’s home on Berry Street was given to the Art School in 1921; at that time the Museum became an official part of the organization – a connection that would endure for over 50 years.

And what became of the student in the photograph, Winifred Randall?  She would have been about 24 at the time the picture was taken; a few years later she was planning her departure for the Art Institute of Chicago, but abandoned that dream when threats to her family’s lumber business kept her from leaving Fort Wayne. She stayed, helped save the business, took over the running of her late husband’s hotel and, as a prominent businesswoman, remained a part of the dedicated group that would sustain and support the Art School. When she passed at 89 in 1963, she would have seen the Fort Wayne Art School & Museum still flourishing.  I’d like to think she was proud to have played a part in our Museum’s colorful history and that she enjoyed seeing the great strides made since her days studying painting at Mrs. Hamilton’s Carriage House!

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