This is a story about a wonderful discovery and a trial of patience. A few years ago, I processed the F. Shirley Prouty Collection on Johannes Kirchmayer, which documents the life and work of her great uncle and contains many years of meticulous research. It was a wonderful collection to work with, and a trove of information on architects and craftsmen of the American gothic revival.
Two of the most outstanding of these are architect Ralph Adams Cram and woodcarver Johannes Kirchmayer, who worked together on many projects. This week I made a wonderful new discovery of another product of their hearts, minds, and hands: a silver and gilt portable font initially commissioned as a gift for the Detroit Museum of Art (now the Detroit Institute of Arts) by George Booth. Cram designed it and Kirchmayer created the sculpture models and chasings for it; then, the piece was executed by silversmith James T. Woolley and decorated by enamellist Elizabeth Copeland.
In February 1918, Cram designed the font, which George Booth hoped to have ready for display at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, to be held in Detroit for the first time in October of 1919.
The making of the font did not follow the anticipated timeline, but rather than a story of delay and disappointment, it becomes a story of patience and its reward.
During the spring, Booth visited Boston and left the Cram blueprint with Woolley. On May 1st, he enquired to know Woolley’s interest in executing the design and an estimate of cost, to which Woolley replied positively, quoting $450 excluding the enamel parts. Giving the commission to Woolley, Booth advised him to confer with Cram or his assistant, Mr. Cleveland, and that Copeland will complete the enameling work.
In informing the Cram office of the arrangement, Booth noted that his first choice had been Arthur Stone, but the silversmith (whom Booth had worked with previously) had been too busy to take it on. The Cram office, while assuring their confidence in Woolley, also expressed their regret of the inability to commission Stone.
A telegram in August suggests that Booth may have visited Woolley late that month, but there is no further communication on progress until January 1919, when the first mention of a completion date enters the written record. Responding to a letter from Helen Plumb (the transaction was made through the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts), Woolley writes that its progress was satisfactory to Cleveland who had seen it a few weeks prior, but that his assistant on the commission was busy with a big government contract. He ends, “This is the way it stands and all I can say.”
A further six months pass. Responding to another letter from Plumb, Woolley sets out the issues interfering with getting the piece finished, along with a direct refusal to give a date of expected completion.
Just shy of two weeks later, a response from Booth. Each of Woolley’s points are calmly addressed based on what was said and what wasn’t said, and he points out a logical flaw in his argument; but then, he asks what he might do to help Woolley progress with the work, understanding the predicament of craftsmen in the aftermath of World War I. The next letter is a conciliatory one to Booth from Cleveland at the behest of Cram:
On July 31, 1919, Booth receives a brief note from Woolley stating that he will give him a definite answer as to when he will be able to finish the font by the end of August, bearing in mind that Booth would like to have it finished in time for the convention in October.
September rolls around. There is then a series of letters about the inscription—now Woolley is waiting to hear from Booth, while Booth is waiting to hear from Cram and Ferguson. After two polite letters from Booth, Cleveland writes to say that the inscription design will be completed that evening and it will be in Woolley’s hand the following day. It’s October.
Cleveland had discouraged any effort to hasten the work as it would result in an unsatisfactory execution of the remaining part of embellishment. This attitude is embraced by Booth who emphasizes to Woolley that he would rather forego the pleasure of exhibiting the font than sacrifice artistic quality:
I leave entirely in your hands but want you to know that I should not desire any sacrifice be made as to the quality of the piece of work, which I hope to permanently represent your very best craftsmanship.
Finally, on June 25, 1920, Booth writes to Clyde H. Burrowes at the Detroit Institute of Arts tendering as a free gift a number of artworks, including the silver and gilt font, which was executed in repoussé technique. In a letter to Plumb a few days later, Booth admits, “it has been something of a trial of patience, but the reward of the finished article is full compensation.” He asks her to convey his appreciation of the splendid job to Woolley and sends extra payment in recognition of his additional labor.
In January 1937, after some hesitation in requesting the return of a gift, Booth writes again to Burrowes to politely request that the commissioners grant release of the font for use at Christ Church and offers a bronze by Frederic Remington in exchange.
Booth’s request was unanimously agreed by the Arts Commission and they accepted the Remington piece, the Mountain Man, being a work of “an outstanding American sculptor not yet represented in museum.” The release was seconded by the Common Council the following month, and the font remains today at Christ Church Cranbrook.
Within this story that charts the making of a beautiful portable font that is a lasting work of James T. Woolley’s craftsmanship and the beautiful detailing of Copeland, there is also the exciting discovery of another collaboration of Cram and Kirchmayer. For me, this story also tells us something more about the man who co-founded this unique and special community, Cranbrook – that the values he cultivated were not only harnessed in creating enduring institutions of service and edification, they were also an everyday lived experience.
—Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research