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Wistariahurst Museum
Former nameHolyoke Museum of Fine Arts and Natural History
Established1901 (original museum)[1]
1959 (current site)
LocationHolyoke, Massachusetts
Coordinates42°12′17″N 72°37′4″W / 42.20472°N 72.61778°W / 42.20472; -72.61778Coordinates: 42°12′17″N 72°37′4″W / 42.20472°N 72.61778°W / 42.20472; -72.61778
DirectorKate Preissler
OwnerCity of Holyoke
Wistariahurst, Holyoke MA.jpg
Wistariahurst is located in Holyoke
Wistariahurst is located in Massachusetts
Wistariahurst is located in the United States
Location238 Cabot St., Holyoke, Massachusetts
Area2.5 acres (1.0 ha)
Built1868 (1868)
1874 (1874)[a]
ArchitectWilliam Fenno Pratt[3]:144
Clarence Sumner Luce
Wilson Eyre[4][b]
Architectural styleSecond Empire
NRHP reference #73000295[2]
Added to NRHPApril 23, 1973

Wistariahurst is a historic house museum and the former estate of the Skinner family, located at 238 Cabot Street in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was built in 1868 for William Skinner, the owner of a successful silk spinning and textile business, and is named for the abundant wisteria vines which cascade across its eastern facade.[5] Originally constructed in Williamsburg in 1868, the mansion designed by Northampton architect William Ferro Pratt was moved to Holyoke in 1874, following the devastating flood which swept away the original Skinner mills. Since 1959 it has been operated as the Wistariahurst Museum, and is open to the public.[6] The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.[2]

Architecture and history[edit]

Top to bottom: Wistariahurst in Williamsburg after the Mill River Flood of 1874, and as it appeared in its current location in Holyoke in 1891

Wistariahurst occupies an entire city block in central Holyoke, bounded by Cabot, Beech, Pine, and Hampshire Streets. The lot is ringed by a low stone retaining wall, which is topped by iron fencing, with entrances on the Beech Street side providing vehicular access to the carriage house and main drive. The main walkway entrance is on Cabot Street, flanked by marble lions. The main house is a three-story wood frame structure, to which a number of additions and alterations have been made over the years. The main portion of the structure is basically square, and is now topped by a mansard roof. The roof is an alteration made when the building was moved to this site from Williamsburg in 1874. A two-story hall projects from one side, added in 1927, and a single-story addition housing a music room and conservatory were added in 1913. The interior is lavishly decorated with original period finishes including tooled leather wall finishings in one room, and original wallpaper in another.[7] The mansion comprises 26 rooms, as well as 16 fireplaces.[8]

The oldest part of the mansion was built while Skinner lived in the nearby town of Williamsburg, and was moved to Holyoke in 1874 when he relocated his business there after a devastating flood. Additions were made to the premises in 1913 and 1927. The buildings and grounds were owned continually by the Skinner family until 1959, when Katharine Skinner Kilborne, the youngest child of William and Sarah Skinner, and her heirs gave Wistariahurst to the City of Holyoke for cultural and educational purposes.[7] Initially considered for demolition by the city for a parking lot for the adjacent high school building at the time, it became the home of the Holyoke Museum of Fine Arts and Natural History, and subsequently a cultural and historic house museum after 1976 when the Library Corporation withdrew its collections.[9]

Carriage house[edit]

Designed by Northampton architect William Ferro Pratt around the same time as the house was removed to Holyoke, the carriage house was constructed circa 1880, and eventually expanded in 1913 to accommodate automobiles. Following the donation of the estate the building was home to the Holyoke Youth Museum which featured a Native American exhibit and the taxidermy collection by Burlingham Schurr, a former curator of Amherst College's zoology collections and curator of the museums prior to its relocation to Wistariahurst when it was known as the Holyoke Museum of Natural History and Art.[10][11] The building originally was crowned with a large cupola and spire, however by the end of the 1960s this was removed, several windows were filled, and by 1980 the entrance was altered to its present appearance today.

Following a period of disuse and deferred maintenance, it was decided around 2005 that the carriage house would be restored to house the archives of Wistariahurst's various collections in a climate-controlled environment. Although a new cupola would remain absent, following $1 million in refurbishments provided by the United Bank Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the city, the building was restored largely within its original architectural style and reopened as the archival research center in October 2009.[12]


Predecessor and founding[edit]

Prior to the donation of the Wistariahurst estate, the museum was originally the Holyoke Museum of Natural History, and later the Holyoke Museum of Fine Arts and Natural History. Its origins were rooted in the meeting of an earlier counterpart, the Holyoke Scientific Club, which first began holding meetings as early as 1886 in William Whiting's Windsor Hotel and the homes of its 30 or so members, discussing such topics as water engines, the Cowles Syndicate's process for metal reduction, and developments in the Holyoke Water Power Company among others.[13][14][15] The early association largely took interest in subjects related to industrial technologies and early on in its existence the group consulted with one of the directors of the Water Power Company on the idea of opening a school of technology. In 1887 its name was changed to the Holyoke Scientific Association, and on February 17, 1888 it was granted a formal charter.[16][17]

Burlingham Schurr (top), the Holyoke Museum's director during its time in Holyoke Public Library, from 1926 until his death in 1951; his daughter Marie Schurr Quirk (bottom), museum director at Wistariahurst, 1959-1975, during the Library Corp. era, again from 1976-1984 after the City reopened Wistariahurst[9][18]

The initial mission of the Association was "to awaken and maintain an active interest in the Practical Sciences, and to aid generally in connection with Arts, Agricultural, Manufacturers and Commerce", and its bylaws would introduce the museum, which was to be curated by the city's librarian. When the library opened in 1902, the museum found its first home in the east wing on the second floor, and by that time had acquired the "Sherman Indian Collection" of indigenous stone implements from one of its members, William J Howes. Initially such collections could only be viewed by appointment in the organization's earliest years. In 1926 the museum, then known as the Holyoke Museum of Natural History, hired Burlingham Schurr, who had previously curated the Berkshire Museum and the Worcester Museum of Natural History, as the directing curator. Schurr, a naturalist and taxidermist, would assemble a comprehensive collection of specimens from the Pioneer Valley's flora, fauna, minerals, and fossils, and served in this post until his death in 1951.[17]

In 1928 the museum purchased 29 paintings, beginning its art collection, of which William Skinner II was a contributor. And by 1952 the Aldermen passed an order for Mayor William Toepfert to name a committee to provide the museum with a permanent home with regular hours. That same year the museum received a donation of 20,000 beetle, moth, and butterfly specimens with the donation of the Charles M. Barr Memorial Case of Insects, and in 1953 it received Charles Coe Collection of Mexican and South American Items. During the 1950s lecture tours on wildlife and art were held in order to raise funds for a permanent home, along with the sale of Christmas cards for fundraising. Early contributors of funds included Quota Club, Holyoke Womens Club, Holyoke Lions Club, as well as local troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and several memorial donations. The former Kenilworth Castle was reportedly one of the sites considered for the museum but was deemed too prohibitively expensive to fit its needs. Finally in June 1959 the Skinner-Kilborne family's Wistariahurst estate was donated to the city for cultural purposes, and subsequently designated as the permanent home of the museum, where in the course of the next several decades it would retool its exhibits gradually around the Skinner's silk industry history and cultural subjects.[17] By the beginning of the 21st century the natural history collections would almost entirely be donated to the University of Massachusetts.[19]

Library corporation era[edit]

Mayor William Taupier presenting Mary E. Preiss a certificate of commendation for her work in getting Wistariahurst on the National Register of Historic Places, 1973

When Wistariahurst was first opened to the public as a museum in 1959, it was operated by the Holyoke Public Library Corporation which, despite its name, is a private organization. The group and its director, Mary Preiss, would successfully get the Wistariahurst estate on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973,[20] and during this period its collections of natural history specimens, art, and artifacts were prominently featured in the halls of the house, as well as a number of notable exhibitions, including an example of Claude Monet's Houses of Parliament, loaned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968.[21][22] This period of the museum's history would come to an end however in June of 1975. Shortly before his resignation, Mayor William Taupier demanded the private Library Corporation relinquish control of the Wistariahurst estate to the city's Historical Commission, in return for public funding. Agreeing to the terms, the Library would also remove its collections as well, leading the city to file suit against the Corporation to determine what parts of this collection were private property and which belonged to the city.[23]

Unfortunately, in the years following a 1989 multimillion dollar budget shortfall,[24] the Library Corporation would sell more than 80 paintings in 1991 and 1992 to private collectors, some originally gifts of their artists. This collection, once housed in Wistariahurst in the mid-20th century held British, Irish, and American Impressionist paintings, including examples by Holyoke local William Chadwick, William Merritt Chase, Frederic Edwin Church, F. O. C. Darley, Francis Day, Frank Duveneck, John Joseph Enneking, Edward Gay, Mauritz de Haas, Howard Russell Butler, Joseph Goodhue Chandler, Eastman Johnson, Régis François Gignoux, Charles P. Gruppé, Hugh Bolton Jones, Alfred Jacob Miller, Edward Moran, John George Brown, N. C. Wyeth, Maitland Armstrong, Ivan Olinsky, Thomas Gainsborough, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, John Henry Twachtman.[25][26]

Visiting today[edit]

The Belle Skinner Music Room as it appeared in 1933, prior to the donation of her collections to Yale; its architectural features remain preserved and today the room serves various public functions

Wistariahurst Museum today provides a view into the lives and tastes of the two generations of the Skinner family that lived in it. The museum features original leather wall coverings, columns, elaborate woodwork and an interesting tale of how two generations perceived and used the house very differently. The museum's permanent collection includes decorative arts; paintings and prints, textiles, and a rich manuscript collection of family and local papers. The museum offers a variety of programs and events, including workshops, concerts, lectures, and demonstrations. The museum is also available for private rental and group tours, and its grounds are rented out to weddings and other social functions.

The museum hosts annual events like its Annual Plant Sale, which raises money toward maintaining the estate's gardens,[27] as well as events for students like "Immigration Experience". The day-long workshop brings in elementary school students from surrounding communities to learn about the lives of immigrants across different ethnicities and classes as they entered the United States via Ellis Island, including millworkers, as well as the Skinner family themselves, as William Skinner himself had immigrated from England.[28][29]

Through the University of Massachusetts Amherst and support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the museum has in recent years previously offered a 1 credit graduate history workshop for school teachers, covering women’s history in the city, and the use of primary sources to develop classroom curricula.[30] Working with the Holyoke Public Library, the museum has also been instrumental in archiving histories of minority communities, including the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded, Nuestros Senderos, collecting stories, photographs, and primary sources for Holyoke Puerto Rican history,[31][32] as well as supporting Black Holyoke, a project by Erika Slocumb, and funded by Mass Humanities, archiving accounts of Holyoke's Black community history.[33][34]

Archive collections[edit]

In addition to seasonal exhibits, gallery shows, and programming with partner institutions, the museum also maintains numerous items found in its permanent collections. Beginning with content donated by the Skinner family, in the decades since the museum's founding it has received multiple donations of material related to the culture and industry of the city.[35]

Ref # Name Years Description
MS 101 Skinner Family Collection 1864-1980 211 boxes; primarily of material dating between 1860 and 1960 concerning Skinner Family and their silk business
MS 201 Holyoke Collection 1794–Present 200 boxes; multifaceted collection containing items related to culture, industry, government, clubs, education, transportation and media
2011.1.2 Carlos Vega Collection of Latino History in Holyoke 1948-1980 43 boxes; organizational records of Nueva Esperanza, social, political, and cultural Latino experience in Holyoke
L2011.028 Holyoke City Hall Collection 1859-1976 104 volumes; ledger records, including mortgage records, tax liens, and legal notices
2012.019 Magoon Collection of Papermaking History 1870-2008 8 boxes + equipment; donated by David Magoon, founder of University Products, contains Am. Writing, Parsons, Chemical, Newton, and Whiting Paper ephemera
2016.010 Holyoke Canoe Club Collection 1888-1993 15 boxes; by-laws, financials, postcards, and ephemera relating to the Holyoke Canoe Club in Smith's Ferry
TEXTILES.001 Textile Collection 1830-1970 157 boxes; clothing, linens, accessories. Includes Skinner family clothing and others either made by Skinner or worn by residents.
Holyoke Postcard Collection 1876-1990 3 boxes; Approximately 1,900 postcards featuring landmarks and natural landscapes
Natural History Collection 1927-1951 Burlingham Schurr's taxidermy primarily donated to UMass Amherst Natural History Collection, "Frog Circus" still kept[19]
William Cobbett Skinner Journals 1876, 1888 Donated by Elizabeth Kilborne Hudnut in 1989, contains journal entries for William Skinner's first-born son at ages, 19 & 31


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Moved and rebuilt in Holyoke
  2. ^ In 1868 William Fenno Pratt designed the original 3-story structure which comprises the main portion of the home to the east, as well as the carriage house at a later date after the building had been moved to Holyoke. Deconstruction, moving, and 1874 reconstruction plans were devised by Clarence S. Luce who also initially the music room expansion. Wilson Eyre would design the house's current main entryway in 1927.


  1. ^ "Skinner Mansion Seen as New Museum Home". Springfield Union. Springfield, Mass. February 7, 1959. p. 20.
  2. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. April 15, 2008.
  3. ^ Kilborne, Sarah S. (2012). American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster Into Destiny. New York: Free Press; Simon & Schuster.
  4. ^ HLY.135, Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS)
  5. ^ Anderson, Phyllis (July 27, 1969). "Wistariahurst: Adventures of a Mansion". Springfield Union. Springfield, Mass. p. 7.
  6. ^ "Wistariahurst Museum". Wistariahurst Museum. Retrieved 2013-12-10.
  7. ^ a b "NRHP nomination for Wistariahurst". Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Retrieved 2013-12-10.
  8. ^ Maynard, Mary (1991). Open Houses in New England. Dublin, N.H.: Yankee Books. p. 131.
  9. ^ a b Teja, Sameera (July 19, 1984). "Outgoing director reflects on career". Springfield Union. Springfield, Mass. p. 10H.
  10. ^ "Wistariahurst's Carriage House" (PDF). The Vine. I (2). Wistariahurst Museum. December 2005.
  11. ^ "A Census of Extinct Birds" (PDF). Amherst Graduates' Quartery. Vol. XXI no. 3. 1932. pp. 201–202.
  12. ^ Dobbs, G. Michael (November 3, 2009). "Wistariahurst Carriage House begins new life". The Reminder. East Longmeadow, Mass.: The Reminder Publications. Archived from the original on June 9, 2019.
  13. ^ "Holyoke". Springfield Republican. Springfield, Mass. February 24, 1886. p. 6. The Holyoke scientific club will meet at the Windsor hotel this evening and listen to an essay on the Cowles process of reducing metals
  14. ^ "Holyoke". Springfield Republican. Springfield, Mass. March 25, 1886. p. 6. The Holyoke scientific club discussed 'Water engines' at their meeting at Windsor hall last night
  15. ^ "Holyoke". Springfield Republican. Springfield, Mass. February 11, 1886. The Holyoke scientific club met at the Pine-street home of C. L. Newcomb last night and W. H. Snow of the water-power company's gas department read an interesting paper on 'Natural gas.' The club have over 30 members and they expect to secure permanent quarters before long
  16. ^ "Holyoke". Springfield Republican. Springfield, Mass. November 7, 1887. p. 6. The Holyoke scientific society at their last meeting decided to change their name to the scientific association for industrial education and scientific purposes. Under this title, when duly incorporated, they can hold property to the extent of $500,000. The members signed the articles of association, and the annual election of officers will take place in about two weeks. It is expected that M. D. Ross of Boston, one of the directors of the water-power company, who takes much interest in the proposed school of technology, will visit Holyoke some day this week and confer with the associaation in regard to the school.
  17. ^ a b c Harper, Wyatt E. (1973). The Story of Holyoke. Centennial Committee of the City of Holyoke. p. 129. OCLC 8060402.
  18. ^ Perkins, Robert (April 19, 1975). "Alderman Anticipates Help In Museum Firing Probe". Springfield Union. Springfield, Mass. p. 2.
  19. ^ a b Holland, Laura (November 12, 2015). "Infusing life: Artist's childhood fascination with natural-history dioramas recalled in recent art project". Daily Hampshire Gazette. Northampton, Mass. Archived from the original on June 20, 2019.
  20. ^ Holyoke, Massachusetts Centennial Souvenir Program. Centennial Committee of the City of Holyoke. 1973. OCLC 49709901.
  21. ^ "Holyoke Museum". The Magazine Antiques. Vol. CXX. p. 1189. The collection was moved to the Skinner-Kilbourne estate, called Wistariahurst, in 1959, where it was housed until 1976
  22. ^ "The Houses of Parliament (Effect of Fog)". The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. Archived from the original on April 8, 2018.
  23. ^ Chipkin, Robert (February 28, 1976). "Museum Issue Drags". Springfield Union. Springfield, Mass. p. 2.
  24. ^ "History of the Holyoke Public Library, 1870–2013". Holyoke Public Library. Archived from the original on February 28, 2019.
  25. ^ Mascolo, Fran (November 24, 1991). "Holyoke paintings draw top $$$". Boston Herald. Boston. p. 60. The draw was 80 pieces consigned by the Holyoke Public Library Corp., an exceptional collection of early 20th-century American paintings assembled from donations by local patrons
  26. ^ "Holyoke Museum, Holyoke, Massachusetts". Art Inventories Catalog, Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved November 2, 2019.
  27. ^ Urban, Cori (April 28, 2016). "Wistariahurst Museum's annual plant sale in Holyoke to feature volunteer gardeners' work". The Republican. Springfield, Mass.
  28. ^ "The Immigration Experience at Wistariahurst Museum" (PDF). Wistariahurst Museum, City of Holyoke. 2017. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 20, 2019.
  29. ^ Williams, Michelle (June 29, 2015). "Students learn of immigration process at Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke". The Republican. Springfield, Mass. Archived from the original on June 20, 2019.
  30. ^ "Landmarks of American History and Culture: Workshops for School Teachers". Wistariahurst Museum. 2017. Archived from the original on June 20, 2019.
  31. ^ Plaisance, Mike (September 19, 2016). "Show us your history: Holyoke library to record Puerto Ricans', other Latinos' stories".
  32. ^ Obregon, Raquel. "Eileen Crosby On Nuestros Senderos Y Nuestras Vidas". New England Public Radio. Springfield, Mass.
  33. ^ Erika Slocumb. "Black Holyoke Project: April Update". Wistariahurst Museum. Archived from the original on June 20, 2019.
  34. ^ Erika Slocumb (January 26, 2018). "Black Holyoke: Uncovering the History of the Black Community in the Paper City". Wistariahurst. Archived from the original on June 20, 2019.
  35. ^ "Collections". Wistariahurst Museum. Archived from the original on June 20, 2019. Retrieved June 20, 2019.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]