Brooklynites looking for an easy day trip escape from the city might want to follow the example of city artists in the late 19th century and hop a train to visit the once bustling scene of the Cos Cob art colony in Greenwich, Conn. A popular artist gathering spot when the colony was at its peak, the Bush-Holley House, still stands near the old harbor and is maintained by the Greenwich Historical Society.
Built in the 18th century and run as a boarding house for artists and writers from the 1880s to the 1920s, the Bush-Holley house was the center of Connecticut’s first art colony. The collegial, informal ambiance of the sprawling old house and the lushness of the surrounding landscape inspired painters who were at the forefront of American Impressionism.
The house began life in about 1728 as a small one-room, two-story house. A larger house was built soon after, and then the Bush family enlarged it into an even more impressive Georgian style home between 1755 and 1777. There were other additions and alterations to the house into the mid 20th century.
The house left the Bush family hands in 1848 and was occasionally operated as a boarding house. In 1882, Josephine and Edward Holley acquired the property, beginning a permanent use of the property as an artistic boarding house.
The Holley’s retreat attracted a mix of artists and writers, many of them from New York. The house, located directly on the Cos Cob Harbor, became a fulcrum of activity, even for artists who weren’t in residence. There were conversational gatherings, dinners and summer art courses centered around the surrounding landscape.
The mix of scenery — from a quaint harbor to rocky farmland — and easy commute attracted artists to the small village. Among those associated directly with the house were painters Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, Ernest Lawson, J. Alden Weir and Genjiro Yeto, as well as writers such as Willa Cather.
John Henry Twachtman began teaching at the Arts Students League in New York in 1889 and started summer classes at the Bush-Holley house. According to the Greenwich Historical Society, his classes are believed to be the first in American Impressionist technique to be taught in the U.S. One of Twachtman’s students, painter and sculptor Elmer Livingston MacRae, married the Holleys’ daughter Constant and together they took over running the boarding house around 1906.
Students often came from the city for classes, including from Brooklyn. In 1896, the Brooklyn Institute sent students to Twachtman’s Cos Cob classes and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the students, “who have become temporary Cos Cobbers in their zeal to acquire an esthetic education, are reported to be leading anything but colorless lives.”
While the Impressionist peak of the art colony had dwindled by the mid 1920s, Elmer and Constant continued to live in the house. In 1957, Constant sold the house to the Greenwich Historical Society, and it opened as a museum in 1958. The society was able to acquire an impressive amount of material — objects, photographs and paintings — relating to the family, the house and the art colony.
In addition to the Bush-Holley house, the society’s campus includes an exhibition space in an early 19th century warehouse known as the Storehouse Gallery, a research library and education center. In 2015, the society announced plans for an expanded campus to increase public programming capacity, with completion set for 2018.
The house has a layered interpretation, presenting both the story of the Bush family from 1790 to 1825 and then leaping forward in time to the art colony decades of 1890 to 1920. Visitors can visit eight period rooms via a guided tour.
Rooms from the earliest period of the house include the two bedrooms — a family bedroom as well as an upstairs space believed to have been used by the enslaved people who were part of the Bush household.
Rooms viewable from the art=colony period include Elmer Macrae’s studio and the front hall with Childe Hassam’s painting of the exact view hanging in the space that inspired him. Other works by Cos Cob artists — many of them painted in the house or in the surrounding landscape — are on view.
Alas, the once painterly view of the Cos Cob harbor was horrifically altered with the late 1950s construction of I-95. An elevated roadway for the highway now stretches directly in front of the house. Fortunately, the arrival of the highway did not signal the end of rail service, and Brooklynites wanting to visit the former boarding house can do so just as the artists did, with a quick train ride and a short walk — although, unlike the visiting artists, there most likely will not be a horse-drawn cart to greet you.
How to Visit
Address: 39 Strickland Road, Cos Cob, Conn.
Hours: The house is open via guided tour at 1, 2 and 3 p.m from March to December on Wednesdays through Sundays and from January to February on Saturdays and Sundays only. The Storehouse Gallery is open year round, Wednesdays through Sundays from 12 to 4 p.m.
Admission: Adults $10, students and seniors $8, members and children under 18 are free. Admission is free the first Wednesday of every month.
Directions: Take Metro North to Cos Cob; the house is less than one mile from the train station. Greenwich is about 1.5 hours by car from Brooklyn via I-95.
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