In our last Short Story, we perused children’s books by great designers donated by the Kean sisters. This month, staying in the theme of sibling charity, we profile another Hewitt who, in his own way, made a substantial contribution to Cooper Hewitt: Erskine Hewitt! In managing his family’s estates, particularly those of his sisters Sarah and Eleanor, he bequeathed to the museum some of its most treasured collection objects.

Margery Masinter, Trustee, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Sue Shutte, Historian at Ringwood Manor
Matthew Kennedy, Publishing Associate, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

A Man of Worth

Horizontal black-and-white historical photograph of an intersection of two streets. The perspective is from the street in the foreground (moving across the image left to right) looking down the intersecting street. Two cars are stationed down the intersecting streets, and along the size of the road are, on the left, a wooden, arrow-shaped sign that reads Lake Erskine and on the left a stone pier with what appears to be a small lantern on top of it. The background of the photo is lined with trees and the sky above is partly cloudy.

Lake Erskine entrance.

The life of Erskine Hewitt (1871–1938) is an interesting story. Grandson of industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper, son of Congressman and New York City Mayor Abram Hewitt, and youngest brother of Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, he “devoted himself chiefly to the public service and the interests of the family estate.” His bequest of over 12,000 objects enriched the collections of the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration (now Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum). Born into considerable wealth, shy and unpretentious, unmarried like Sarah and Eleanor, he was called “a bore” and called himself “the black sheep of the family.” Why?! He was a man of intelligence and enterprise, and his commitment to the Cooper and Hewitt families contributed greatly to preserving the record of their legacies and achievements.

Let’s start from the beginning.

A vertical portrait of a young boy. He sits at center, looking slightly away from the viewer, his legs crossed with his right hand on his left thigh. He hair is long and wavy, and he is dressed in short pants, a frilly blouse, and a jacket—children's formalwear typical of the late nineteeth century. The background is a blurry mix of foliage and draped fabrics.

Erskine Hewitt portrait as a child by S.W. Rowse, ca. 1875.

Erskine was named after the Revolutionary War General Robert Erskine, whose tombstone is on the historic property of the Hewitt family country home in New Jersey, Ringwood Manor. With three older sisters and two brothers, his childhood was dynamic and privileged. The Cooper Hewitt blog series Meet the Hewitts tells the story of the Cooper-Hewitt family.

He graduated from Princeton University in 1891, cum laude with special honors in political science and law, and earned a master’s degree from Princeton in 1893. Princeton’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library contains comments and stories about his life and accomplishments in Class of 1891 books from 1891 through 1931. Forty years in his words!

A composite image of two photographs. On the left is the cover of a publication titled

(left) The Nassau Herald, 1891; (right) Erskine’s graduation photograph from yearbook.

His Princeton graduation yearbook states that he was 6 feet tall, weighed 160 pounds, was Episcopalian and a Democrat, and was called “Erk.” He was an athlete, distinguishing himself in racquet sports and ice hockey, a club man, and an amateur photographer.

The Mudd Library has a collection of photographs taken by Erskine on the Princeton campus. The newly invented Kodak box camera, with its ability to take still photos easily, must have fascinated him given that his grandfather and two older brothers were inventors.

A composite image of two photographs. On the left is a photograph of two young men standing in front of a stone building with gothic windows. The two men are dress in dark jackets and light pants with shirts and neckties. They each hold a small square box and are looking directly at the camera. The right photoraph pictures seven young met sitting on a lawn with one additional man lying on his side in front of them. They are all dress in three-piece suits, and all are looking directly at the camera except for one, who looks at the man lying. Pictured in the distance is a large, collegiate-looking building and a number of tall trees.

Photographs by Hewitt, ca. 1891, Historical Photograph Collection, Student Photographer Series, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.

A composite image of an photograph and a patent. On the left is a photograph of an old camera. It is positioned at three-quarter view, and is a brown, boxy rectangle. At the front is a circular exposing the lense. At the top is a flat piece of metal that appears to be a winding mechanism. The right image is of a nineteenth-century patent for the camera pictured at left. In all black on a white background, text at the top read

(left) Kodak camera, 1889, National Museum of American History. The box camera was pre-loaded with a one-hundred-exposure role of film. After all the photos were taken, the camera was mailed back to Kodak, and the prints and the camera loaded with a new roll of film were returned to the owner. (left) Kodak patent for new box camera 1888.

Erskine graduated from New York Law School in 1893, but practiced only briefly after receiving his degree. He volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War and earned the rank of Captain while serving on General James H. Wilson’s staff in Puerto Rico. In his 40th reunion yearbook, Erskine included a letter from General Wilson to his father Abram: “He has been my constant companion, and has won my admiration and respect for his character, courage and courtesy, and for the modesty and intelligence with which he has behaved on all occasions. He is a man of real worth . . .”

A black-and-white portrait of a tall man in millary uniform. He stands are center against a background of trees and sky, looking to the right of the viewer with his left foot positioned slightly out in front of himself. He wears a wide-brimmed hat, an tan jacket with a high collar and many pockets, gloves, tan pants, and boots.

Erskine in uniform.

He was honorably discharged in 1898 and then joined the Cooper & Hewitt Company, a steel manufacturing company headed by his father. After it merged into the United States Steel Corporation, he pursued interests in business and real estate. His yearbook entries state he was “a steady bachelor and good club man” and has “learned how to enjoy life and friends.” Memberships in social and sporting clubs filled his leisure time.

A black-and-white historical photograph of five people. They are all standing in pose against a blank background, and they are dressed in elaborate costume. The costumes are a mix of historical styles.

The James Hazen Hyde Ball, 1905. Group portrait with guests in French 18th-century costume. Erskine is at far right and his brother Peter Cooper Hewitt is in the center. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

Erskine served on prominent corporate boards and was president of various real estate enterprises, including the Ringwood Company and Hewitt Realty Company. On the Cooper & Hewitt Company’s 20,000 acres in the area near Ringwood, he developed several residential communities featuring small log cabins and cottages built as summer residences. Erskine’s summer home on Cupsaw Lake in New Jersey was called “Erks Den.”

A black-and-white advertisement. The image is dominated by a photograph of a wooden cabin positioned close the the water of a lake. It is surrounded by trees, with a large hill covers in trees in the background across the lake. Superimposed on the lower left of the photograph is what appears to be the floorplan of the pictured cabin. Beneath the photograph is text that reads

Erskine Lakes, log cabin and layout.

Erskine’s collecting interests focused on objects of early Americana, and he became known as a passionate collector and connoisseur. Over forty years, he built an extensive collection of important miniatures, paintings and drawings, furniture, and other decorative arts objects, which he freely lent to museums in New York. His notable collection was auctioned by Parke Bernet in several sessions after his death in 1938.

A 1938 clipping from a newspaper. The text reads

New York Times, October 23, 1938

Upon Sarah’s death in 1930, her will gave Erskine a major share of her estate, as well as responsibility for carrying out her wishes with regard to gifts she wished to go to the Cooper Union Museum. These were objects located within the family home at 9 Lexington Avenue. It should be noted here that Sarah and Eleanor had an idea of creating a “Family Museum,” but this project was never realized. Designated as “The 1931 Musgrave List,” it included eighty boxes and packages containing multiple objects of jewelry, textiles, decorative objects, drawings, and prints—even a Louis XV horse bridle made by Hermès. Below is a page of Sarah’s notes which reflect her exacting personality.

An excerpt from a numbered list of objects. Descriptions of objects are typeset, with handwritten annotations along the left side in the margin.

Page from “The Musgrave List.”

The Cooper Hewitt Registrar’s file on Erskine Hewitt contains letters of appreciation  for the “splendid support [he had] given the Museum over the entire period of its Existence.” These notes and letters attest to his devotion to his sisters and his “unfailing interest and valuable gifts” until his death in 1938.

A black-and-white vertical portrait of an older man. He is pictured from the shoulders up and looks directly at the camera. He is wearing a dark three-piece suit and has receding white hair and a moustache.

Erskine Hewitt, in later years.

In 1936, Erskine donated Ringwood Manor, its contents, and the surrounding property to the state of New Jersey, as a museum and a state park. With original historical structures, gardens, and landscapes on 582 acres, the Ringwood Manor museum and park are now visited and enjoyed by thousands of people all year round.

Erskine also donated property in the town of Ringwood for a large elementary school to be named after his sister. The Eleanor G. Hewitt School is still in operation today.

Pursuing his sense of responsibility to the family, he preserved historical material including correspondence and published writings documenting the lives and work of Peter Cooper, Abram Hewitt, and their families. These papers are now located in the Cooper Union Library, Cooper-Hewitt Papers, Bequest of Erskine Hewitt, 1938.

Erskine’s will literally “cleaned out” the family home at 9 Lexington Avenue. In great detail, he described the rooms where all the portraits, drawings, furniture, and china were located and then slated to go to the Museum. Over 12,000 objects were in the Erskine Hewitt Bequests of 1938 and 1942 (highlights pictured below). Other contents of the house were auctioned by Parke Bernet, and the house was demolished in 1939.

Tulip laid horizontally, with upper and lower portions of dish composed of full length petals.

Tulip Dish and Lid, 1760–90; Probably Volkstedt (Principality of Rudolstadt, Thuringia, Germany); Painted and glazed hard-paste porcelain; H x W x D: 11 x 11.6 x 19.2 cm (4 5/16 x 4 9/16 x 7 9/16 in.); Bequest of Erskine Hewitt, 1938-57-550-a,b; Photo by Ellen McDermott © Smithsonian Institution

Composite image of (a) Vertical rectangle, bevelled corners. Figure of a woman in a low-necked white evening dress and a red shawl with long fringe, on the arm of a man who is holding his high hat in the right hand. Both seen in side back view. In background, groups of figures in conversation, two chandeliers and arched doorways with curtains. And (b) Vertical rectangle. The praying Virgin gazes at Gabriel kneeling and bowing low on clouds which cover most of the floor of the room. Cherubim surround the group with the Dove at top left.

(left) Drawing, Arriving at the Hall, ca. 1860; Designed by Constantin Guys (French, 1802–1892); Pen and brown ink, brush and watercolor on paper; H x W: 24.9 × 19.4 cm (9 13/16 × 7 5/8 in.); Bequest of Erskine Hewitt, 1938-57-107; Photo © Smithsonian Institution; (right) Drawing, The Annunciation, ca. 1732; Giovanni-Battista Tiepolo (Italian, 1692–1770); Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash over black chalk on off-white laid paper; 40.8 x 28.7 cm (16 1/8 x 11 1/4 in.); Bequest of Erskine Hewitt, 1938-57-228; Photo © Smithsonian Institution

Composite image of (a) Roundel with a young lady seated in a garden surrounded by flowering trees. In polychrome silks outlined in gold metallic embroidery. And (b) Small long-haired dog, sitting, head slightly turned; white with brown patches.

(left) Roundel (China), 19th century; Silk and metallic embroidery on silk foundation, paper backing; Diam.: 22.2 cm (8 3/4 in.); Bequest of Erskine Hewitt, 1938-57-1629; Photo © Smithsonian Institution; (right) Figure Of A Dog (Germany), 18th century; Made by Meissen Porcelain Factory (Meissen, Saxony, Germany); Enameled porcelain; H x W x D: 20 x 28 x 11.4 cm (7 7/8 in. x 11 in. x 4 1/2 in.); Bequest of Erskine Hewitt, 1938-57-560; Photo by Ellen McDermott © Smithsonian Institution

Photograph of four stoneware vessels. From left to right: a bowl that is circular, on raised foot, sides have basket-weave texture, inside smooth. Next a chocolate pot that is tall, slightly swelling body, long loop handle, short spout; high domed lid with finial in the form of a draped female figure. Sides of body (lower portion) and lid with basket-weave texture; wide band top section of body plain. Third, a sugar bowl that is cylindrical, high domed lid with finial in the form of a draped female figure; basket-weave texture sides and lid. Finally, a creamer that is a slightly swelling form, short spout, long loop handle; sides with basket-weave texture.

Bowl, chocolate pot, sugar bowl, and creamer, late 18th century; Made by Wedgwood (Staffordshire, England); Moulded and thrown unglazed stoneware (black basalt), encaustic silver decoration; Bequest of Erskine Hewitt, 1938-57-306-a,b

Black Chantilly lace parasol cover with a radiating floral design and deeply scalloped edge.

Parasol Cover (France), ca. 1880; Silk; H x W: 70.2 x 70.2 cm (27 5/8 x 27 5/8 in.); Bequest of Erskine Hewitt, 1938-57-1463; Photo by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

He accomplished his mission, being “the conservator and augmenter of the family estate and properties.” He was, indeed, a “man of real worth.”

Sources

Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University, New Jersey, https://rbsc.princeton.edu/mudd.

Ringwood Manor, Ringwood, New Jersey, www.ringwoodmanor.org.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, cooperhewitt.org.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.