Finding the Location for the Fort Wayne Art Museum: Third Time’s a Charm?

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

While gathering information for the upcoming exhibit on the old Fort Wayne Art School, I visited the Fort Wayne History Center to ask if there was anything in their collection about the school.  I expected them to have some of the old school catalogues or yearbooks, instead, archived in their collection is a lavishly produced print proposal for a new Fort Wayne Art School and Museum that was to be built in Foster Park!  The firm hired to design this new facility was world-renowned Saarinen and Swanson of Birmingham, Michigan.  The publication was not dated, but we guessed that it was post-WWII.  I searched the minutes of the Fort Wayne Art School board of directors meetings for reference to this project and found in the June 1945 minutes that this firm had been hired. In addition, legislation had been passed that would allow the Parks Board to lease park land for the school.  A year later, this was recorded in the minutes:

A special meeting of the Board of Directors and Trustees was held Monday evening July 22 at 8 P.M. The purpose of the meeting was to view the architects’ model of the proposed new Art School and Museum.  Mr. Robert Swanson displayed the model and discussed it through the uses of the plans and photos. After he completed his explanation a discussion followed and everyone left with a feeling of pride in having a part in helping to realize this goal.

Though several references to the planning of the facility and to the launch of a fundraising campaign were recorded in the ensuing months, mention of the new school and museum suddenly disappears from the records in 1949.  Was this because the planning and funding for the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum overshadowed the need for a new art school and museum?  The reason is not recorded in the minutes, but later that same year the school and museum’s board accepted the gift of the Paul Mossman home to house the museum’s collection.

The drawing shows the museum building that was envisioned for Foster Park, with high ceilings and wide glass windows.
A drawing of the new Fort Wayne Art School and Museum building that was envisioned for Foster Park. Image courtesy of Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

This wasn’t the first, nor the last, time the effort would be made to build a new Fort Wayne Art School and Museum — a fine architecture firm selected, plans made, drawings produced, site selected, only to be dashed by circumstances.  This first occurred in 1903, when Marshall Mahurin, already a prominent local architect and a member of the Fort Wayne School of Art Board of Control, designed a new building for the school. The board had been casting about for a new site in anticipation of losing the Hamilton carriage house to the construction of the new Fort Wayne High School.  The art school had occupied the idyllic ivy-covered carriage house (also modified by Mahurin) since 1892.  Sadly, for the students who were attached to the charming building and its row of lilac bushes, the art school had to move again – to its 6th location!

Mahurin’s drawings were praised and even included in an art exhibit, but funds could not be raised to execute the plans. Instead, the school “made do” with another affordable old building – this one a former residence on Webster Street where it stayed in cramped quarters until, thankfully, in 1921, Theodore Thieme gave his home for the school and museum.  Ironically, the Thieme home was also designed by Marshall Mahurin. Surely, the architect didn’t dream in 1898 that the elegant home he was designing at 1026 West Berry Street would one day house the little art school, and would be its home for seventy years.

The third attempt, of course, was when the ambitious plan to construct an integrated arts campus on Main Street designed by Louis Kahn failed.  It was not for lack of heroic effort, but the costs were too high.  The drawings for the art school made by Kahn’s firm show a long, two-story structure attached to the theatre building on its east side, and included a stand-alone art museum. Kahn spent many hours with the building committee members discussing the needs of students and instructors until the project was shelved in 1969 when the arts campus focus turned to the building and funding of Kahn’s theatre.

At the same time this reality was sinking in, the school’s future as part of Indiana University was developing as the concept of merging solidified. The merger became final in 1976. The Fort Wayne Art School, as the IPFW Department of Fine Arts, would finally be given a new facility on the IPFW campus in 1991.

As for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, which split from the Fort Wayne Art School when the IU merger occurred, the determined local arts community succeeded in achieving the dream of a new building designed and built specifically for the museum’s needs and for expansion.  Walter Netsch was the consulting architect retained to design the facility we presently occupy.  It was built on a portion of the original Kahn-designed campus, and dedicated in 1984.  Of course, since then we have grown in space, capabilities, and collection size, providing the community even more access to quality art via the building’s expansion. And we are now witnessing the amazing transformation of the arts campus around us. Clearly, this community continues to strive for and embrace the quality arts environment that was begun over a century ago and that was fiercely sustained by the passion and generosity of its citizens.

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