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American Women: Topical Essays

Part of the American Women series, this essay provides a portrait of musician and philanthropist Marian MacDowell, who in memory of her husband, composer Edward A. MacDowell, founded an artists' retreat in 1907 that remains in operation to this day.

The House That Marian Built: The MacDowell Colony of Peterborough, New Hampshire

Abstract: Demonstrating the rich potential of the Library's collections for biographers, Rausch provides a portrait of musician and philanthropist Marian MacDowell, who in memory of her husband, composer Edward A. MacDowell, founded an artists' retreat in 1907 that remains in operation to this day, having inspired, nurtured, and supported the creative output of hundreds of artists in this country.
[Edward MacDowell and his wife, Marian, half-length portrait, seated, facing front]. [ca. 1905]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

It took long years for me to realize what a different world I would have had, and how narrow my usefulness would have been should this child have lived. Aside from the fact that I know now that some of the happiest moments are those where the husband and wife are brought closer together through the intimate companionship, which is inevitably broken where there are children too, of course, the Colony would never have existed.1

Looking back over her long life, Marian MacDowell, the wife of American composer and pianist Edward MacDowell, reflected on the direction it had taken. She gave up a promising future as a pianist to devote herself to her husband's career, insisting that “the fostering of a great creative gift was an infinitely higher mission for her, than interpreting the works of others.”2 Her only child was stillborn, and she lost her beloved Edward after twenty-three years of marriage when he succumbed to a devastating nervous disorder at the age of forty-six. Marian MacDowell was fifty years old when her husband died in 1908. She spent the rest of her life—another forty-eight years—creating the artists' retreat that was his final wish. Returning to the piano after more than twenty years, she became the foremost interpreter of Edward MacDowell's piano music, and traveled across North America playing concerts to benefit the fledgling MacDowell Colony. The last half of her life is synonymous with the birth of the MacDowell Colony, an institution that has left its mark on the cultural landscape of this country and continues to nurture and support creative artists today.

For examples of works created by Colony Fellows, view the following websites:

Marian MacDowell's story touches many different collections throughout the Library of Congress. The Music Division is a particularly rich source of information with numerous special collections that contain her correspondence, the Arnold T. Schwab Collection of MacDowell research material, and, most importantly, the Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection which fills 73 boxes and 25 linear feet of shelf space.3 This collection is divided into three sections: the papers of Edward MacDowell, the papers of Marian MacDowell, and the records of the MacDowell Colony. Marian MacDowell's papers include her unpublished autobiographical writings, which are central to any study of her life. These recollections, source of the opening quote above, include anecdotes from her childhood and recall how she came to study with Edward MacDowell in Germany. They tell of beginnings, Marian's and the colony's, and provide a logical starting place for research into both.

Marian Griswold Nevins was born in 1857, the third of five children born to David H. Nevins, a Wall Street banker, and his wife, Cornelia L. Perkins. Her mother's death in childbirth left a vivid impression on the eight-year-old Marian, who was chosen to tell her father the news as he returned from a business trip.

I can remember it as though it were yesterday, sitting in the dining room, we little girls, not quite conscious of the desperation in the minds of my grandmother and the doctor, who was also a relative, as to the return of my father to find what had happened. I heard the carriage come up to the front door and then they all looked at each other with consternation; neither one could dare to go out and meet him. They did not know what an awful thing they did, but knowing the very strong affection my father had for me, they pushed me out into the hall and said, “You have got to tell Father Mother is dead.” He came in, looked at me and said, “What is the matter?” I said, “Mother is dead,” and he fell as though he had been knocked over the head with a heavy blow.4

Mrs. Edward MacDowell: piano recitals of MacDowell music (cover of publicity brochure). ca. 1920. Library of Congress Music Division.

Marian became the oldest female of the family after her mother's death and assumed an increasingly responsible role in the years that followed. Her aunt Caroline Perkins of South Carolina, a talented musician who came to New York to teach piano, recognized the child's musical gifts and worked with her to develop them. As Marian became more accomplished, she realized that her future depended on study in Europe. No one was taken seriously as a music teacher or performer in America without having studied abroad. She decided to work with Clara Schumann, and, using a modest inheritance she received upon her mother's death, she left with a chaperone for Frankfort-am-Main in 1880.

Madame Schumann was away on concert tour when Marian arrived in Germany and, not wanting to waste time, she inquired of Joachim Raff, head of the Frankfort Conservatory of Music, who another suitable teacher might be. Raff recommended a brilliant young American, Edward MacDowell, since Marian's conversational ability in German was still somewhat limited. “Of course,” Raff remarked, “I am not sure that MacDowell would want to give you lessons.” Marian was more certain. “I knew that I was very sure I didn't want to take them,” she wrote. She had not come all the way to Europe to study with an American. Edward and Marian both so respected Raff that they agreed to meet. “We were both so indignant at the situation for he didn't want to teach me and I didn't want to have him; but we started in.” Upon first hearing her play Edward remarked “You know, you really have quite a lot of talent but you can't play piano one bit.” Challenged by his assessment, Marian realized her playing did indeed have technical limitations. She saw that Edward MacDowell might have something to offer as a teacher after all, and began working with him in earnest.5

Marian won Edward MacDowell's respect by her hard work and as the two became better acquainted, they grew closer. The death of his friend Joachim Raff and the death of Marian's father deepened their friendship as they turned to each other for consolation and support. When it came time for her to return to America, they realized their feelings for each other and began to talk of marriage. Marian accepted Edward's proposal on one condition: so strongly did she believe in his talent as a composer, she insisted he devote himself to composing and live off her savings for the next five years. He objected strongly, but realizing she was quite serious and would not marry him otherwise, he finally agreed. They were married in Waterford, Connecticut, on July 21, 1884.

Marian MacDowell's dedication to her husband's creative work was evident from the beginning of their life together. It appears, however, that she did not enter into marriage with the knowledge that she would be giving up her own career entirely, for in her memoirs she recalls, “I hadn't been married three months before I knew that I had to make a choice between a husband and a career.”6 She had an uncanny empathy for her husband's need of a quiet place for his composition and, whenever they moved, preoccupied herself with finding him a room of his own. “I had a bad but useful habit,” she wrote, “of not consulting my husband. . . . [T]his avoided discussion. It never hurt . . . to follow an impulse, then talk it over with him.”7

It was in this manner that, in 1896, Marian MacDowell bought Hillcrest, a farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire, for their summer residence. She telegraphed the news to Edward and he wired back the following reply: “All right, in your name, your responsibility.”8 Despite his reservations, Edward MacDowell fell in love with Hillcrest. His wife surprised him after their first summer there by having a log cabin built in the woods near the house. It was here that he found the perfect conditions necessary to pursue his creative work. In this log cabin he wrote his most significant piano works. This studio became the “house of dreams untold” that he versified on the title page of his piano piece “From a Log Cabin,” opus 62, number 9. And the opportunity to work undisturbed afforded him by the log cabin studio became his fervent wish for other artists.

C. Walbridge. Marian MacDowell at the piano with Nina Maud Richardson. 1940. Library Of Congress Music Division.

In 1904, Edward MacDowell resigned in protest from a position at Columbia University as head of the Music Department over a disagreement with the new president concerning their fine arts curriculum, a new program and one not altogether welcome in academia. It was a traumatic time for the MacDowells; faculty took sides and many grievances were aired in the press. Whatever the medical reason for Edward MacDowell's death, the Columbia episode contributed to his slow mental decline which was marked by periods of dementia. By late 1905, Marian MacDowell could no longer care for her husband by herself, yet she refused to institutionalize him. She hired a nurse, Anna Baetz, to help her look after him and the two women became close friends. Anna left a brief diary excerpt, found in Edward MacDowell's papers, that offers a poignant account of Edward and Marian's devotion to each other. She ultimately curtailed her nursing career and remained with Marian MacDowell for almost eighteen years, the formative years of the colony. When Anna died in 1923, a memorial fund was begun for a studio in her honor. A tribute to Anna Baetz, “the nurse of Edward MacDowell,” appears in the June 1926 issue of The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review.9

During his final illness, Edward MacDowell became obsessed with his dream of an artists' retreat. He wanted other artists, not only musicians, to benefit from the same uninterrupted solitude that he had enjoyed. Marian promised him she would make that happen. In 1907, she transferred the deed of the Peterborough property to the newly formed Edward MacDowell Association, an organization that evolved from a group of prominent names in the creative arts that supported the composer's ideas.

I was wise enough to realize that there had to be something tangible for people to have back of a venture so that they could believe in what we were trying to do; it was not enough for me to say that I would leave this property to the Association, but it had to belong to them while I was still alive.10

After the construction of a large studio, the colony was officially begun that summer with the arrival of Helen Mears (1872-1916), a young sculptor, and her sister Mary Mears (1876-1943), a writer who later published an account of the colony in the July 1909 issue of The Craftsman.11 Edward did not live to see a second season of colonists. He died January 23, 1908.

Marian MacDowell did not have the financial resources of an Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge or Isabella Stewart Gardner and she knew she was going to have to raise substantial sums if the colony was to survive and grow. She began to speak to local women's groups and music clubs to enlist their help. It was one of these speaking engagements that quite accidentally brought her piano career back to life.

After I had finished talking and really interested the people, somebody in the audience said, “Won't you play for us?” I laughed and I said I had not played piano for twenty-two years. But she said we don't care how you play but it will be interesting to hear how you play the MacDowell compositions. To my utter amazement they seemed very pleased.12

Rothschild Photo, photographer. Marian MacDowell and pianist Lillian Steuber with the score to Edward MacDowell's concerto No. 2 for piano and orchestra. 1951. Library of Congress Music Division.

Marian soon realized that as Edward MacDowell's wife and former student, she occupied a unique role as the leading interpreter of his piano music. At the age of fifty she resumed her career as a pianist and, for approximately the next twenty-five years, traveled throughout the United States and Canada, giving between 400 to 500 concerts to raise money for the colony. Her performances and speaking engagements are well documented through the programs and reviews found among her papers in the Music Division's Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection.

In addition to Marian MacDowell's writings, which detail her fund raising efforts and the growth of the colony, the correspondence in the collection is also a rich source of information. Edward MacDowell's papers include letters to his wife from 1880 to1903, and Marian MacDowell's papers contain extensive correspondence with family members, prospective colonists and benefactors, and her long-time companion Nina Maud Richardson, who became her assistant in the late 1920s. Among Marian MacDowell's correspondents one finds the names of Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, and the esteemed French music pedagogue Nadia Boulanger who wrote the following words of support and encouragement: “it is so wonderful that your devotion turns to help for young people—and that the great memory you are living for, becomes the sign under which a new generation finds herself.”13

The records of the MacDowell Colony that comprise the third section of the Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection contain Marian MacDowell's working copies of corporate and organizational materials concerning the management of the colony. There are also lists of colonists, clippings about the colony, board meeting minutes, annual reports, and financial documents.

The Arnold T. Schwab Collection, also located in the Music Division, contains additional material related to the life and work of Marian MacDowell. Dr. Schwab became interested in the MacDowells in the 1960s while working on a biography of the critic James G. Huneker, a great admirer of Edward MacDowell's music. He began to collect letters and reminiscences about Mrs. MacDowell with the intention of one day writing her biography. Due to other commitments, however, the project was never realized. Dr. Schwab donated his research collection to the library so that it might complement its other MacDowell holdings. With close to 23,400 items in 16 linear feet, the Arnold T. Schwab Collection is particularly rich in correspondence. Photocopies of MacDowell letters held by other institutions are of special interest. The collection also contains Dr. Schwab's research correspondence, his notes and writings, scrapbooks, and iconography.

The Manuscript Division's Records of the MacDowell Colony document the management and administration of the colony and its parent organization, the Edward MacDowell Association. There is some duplication of material between these records and the MacDowell Colony records in the Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection. This collection, however, is the more extensive of the two, containing approximately 35,000 items and occupying 33 linear feet. It contains colony records up to 1970 with the bulk of material from 1945-56, when Marian relinquished her administrative responsibilities to the board of directors of the Edward MacDowell Association. Comprising correspondence, applications for admission, minutes of meetings, reports, legal and financial papers, and miscellany, these records provide a fascinating look at the workings of Marian MacDowell's enterprise. The annual reports of the Edward MacDowell Association are full of information about resident artists, finances, and general colony news. Proceeds from Marian's lecture recitals, which totaled close to $100,000 by 1930, are itemized in early reports—she chose not to have them published in later ones. Among the donors listed, women appear as regular and generous benefactors. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge gave $31,000 to the general fund of the colony between 1916 and 1935. Estate bequests, predominantly from women, include one from former colonist and composer Amy Beach. While the colony did benefit from large contributions of single individuals, equally important was the support of music clubs and associations across the country. Local MacDowell clubs, the women's music sorority Sigma Alpha Iota, and the National Federation of Music Clubs, all became involved in fund-raising efforts for the colony. Marian MacDowell was well aware of how much of her support came from women. “I hate to admit it,” she once said, “but women do most of it. Five music sororities helped me but not one fraternity.”14

In addition to the Records of the MacDowell Colony, the Manuscript Division also houses its own collection of Marian MacDowell material [catalog record]. Numbering approximately 2,000 items in just under 4 linear feet of shelf space, the Papers of Marian MacDowell relate chiefly to her activities with the MacDowell Colony, particularly during the period 1908-38. The collection is primarily correspondence and includes recommendations for admittance to the colony, requests for time to work at the colony, and Marian MacDowell's letters to Nina Maud Richardson dating from the 1930s.

In 1923, Marian MacDowell was awarded Pictorial Review's $5,000 Annual Achievement Award, a prize given to “the American woman who makes the most valuable contribution to American life during the year.” “The one outstanding need in America,” the feature article from the March 1925 issue posited, “is a stimulation of the creative impulse.”15 Marian MacDowell and her colony fulfilled that need, providing creative artists an ideal environment in which to work. By this time the MacDowell Colony had grown to 500 acres and nineteen studios, with two more on the way. Applications for time to work at the colony numbered over 300. Artists were now selected by an admissions committee based on letters of reference, a far cry from earlier years when Marian solicited prospective colonists by invitation.

Bernice B. Perry, photographer. Louise Talma composing in her studio at the MacDowell Colony, Petersborough, N.H. 1947. Library of Congress Music Division.

What made the colony so attractive to artists was not only the solitude and uninterrupted days of creative work, but also the opportunity to interact with artists in other fields. Composer and colonist Aaron Copland [picture] recalled how working with artists from all disciplines gave him a new insight into art in America.16 The early decades of the twentieth century found many American artists struggling to break free from European models, and the colony offered them the freedom to experiment and find their own unique voices. Writers, composers, and visual artists, most in the early stages of their careers and many unknown, were given the gift of time. And there has never been a dearth of women working there. From the Mears sisters in 1907, the rolls of artists who were granted residence at the MacDowell Colony during Marian MacDowell's lifetime included composers Amy Beach, Ruth Crawford, Miriam Gideon, Mary Howe, and Louise Talma; visual artists Bashka Paeff, Lilla Cabot Perry, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, Katharine Beecher Stetson, and Ursula Whitlock; and writers Willa Cather, Julia Peterkin, Leonora Speyer, Sara Teasdale, Margaret Widdemer, and Elinor Wylie. Five of these women were Pulitzer Prize winners.17

The success of the MacDowell Colony has been documented in numerous periodical and newspaper articles throughout its existence. Colony coverage in music periodicals abounds. Located in the Music Division's collections, these include Marian's own “MacDowell's Peterborough Idea” from Musical Quarterly (18:1932). As the prestige of the colony and its artists grew, feature articles appeared in more mainstream publications such as Atlantic Monthly, Life, Reader's Digest, and the Christian Science Monitor.18 When Marian MacDowell's ninety-fifth year was celebrated with an officially proclaimed “Marian MacDowell Day,” August 15, 1952, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times ran stories.19 Newspapers and periodicals in particular offer a currency of information that is lacking in the other MacDowell material at the Library. The Boston Globe, for example, features two accounts of MacDowell colonists in its issues from 1992. The year 1996 was celebrated as the 100th anniversary of Marian MacDowell's purchase of Hillcrest with a feature article in American Artist and a special exhibit of MacDowell Colony artists covered by the New York Times.20

Marian MacDowell's astonishing longevity added to her remarkable achievements; by the time she entered her tenth decade, she was something of a legend. In the early 1950s she was interviewed for a New York Philharmonic intermission broadcast on CBS radio and for the Voice of America by Telly Sevalas, then a VOA reporter. The MacDowell Colony audio material (LWO 15821) in the Recorded Sound Research Center contains these interviews as well as one with Marian MacDowell and composer Mary Howe. Early silent film footage of the colony (LWO-20379) and of “Marian MacDowell Day” (FEC 1586) is available for viewing in the Moving Image Research Center. In 1954, Marian MacDowell was honored in a Hallmark Hall of Fame special based on her life, Lady in the Wings (VBH 0858). This dramatization closes with a brief appearance by the elderly Marian, on the arm of her companion Nina Maud Richardson. It is the only moving image with sound of Marian MacDowell in the Library's collections. Equally rare is the recording of her piano playing found among the recordings of the Works Progress Administration. Recorded around 1942, this 16-inch disc (NCPC 00792) contains a short segment of Edward MacDowell's “Haunted House.” She was well into her eighties at the time this recording was made.

Photographs of Marian and Edward MacDowell and the MacDowell Colony are found in several collections. The Prints and Photographs Division's MacDowell Colony material (PR 13 1980:70) consists of a box of miscellaneous photos and three scrapbooks. Currently unprocessed, it is viewable upon special application. Some of the photos are identified, such as one of Marian and Edward dating from around 1905-6 and reproduced here, but many are not. Photographs are also found in the MacDowell collections held by the Music Division and Manuscript Division.

Not to be overlooked are the fruits of the colony artists themselves. Aside from published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by colony writers in the General Collections, and musical scores and recordings in the Music Division and in the Recorded Sound Section, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division has custody of first editions that were presentation copies to Marian from colony writers.

When Marian MacDowell died on August 23, 1956, at the age of ninety-eight, her obituary was carried in newspapers across the country. Literally hundreds of these can be found in the Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection in the Music Division. They consistently identify her as the widow of composer Edward MacDowell and some devote considerable space detailing Edward's accomplishments. One columnist, remarking on this trend, was so bold as to set the record straight: “So far as influence in the arts is concerned,” wrote David Felts, of the Urbana, Illinois Courier, “Edward MacDowell might be identified as the husband of Marian MacDowell.”21

Marian MacDowell brought the MacDowell Colony to life and saw it through two world wars, the stock market crash, the Depression, and a hurricane that devastated New England in 1938. She was awarded honorary degrees from the University of New Hampshire, Durham (1930), New Jersey State College for Women (1938), and Middlebury College (1939). In 1940 she received the Pettee Medal from the University of New Hampshire and, in 1941, the Henry Hadley Medal for outstanding service to music. At the age of ninety-two, she was honored by the National Institute of Arts and Letters for her distinguished service in the arts. Yet Marian MacDowell was loath to take credit for the colony, preferring to call herself “one of the help.” She summed up her extraordinary achievements quite simply: “I am a very ordinary woman who had an opportunity—and I seized it.”22


  1. “Writings about Edward A. MacDowell: Biographical,” unnumbered pages, box 39, folder 14, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  2. “Mrs. Edward MacDowell” publicity brochure, box 57, folder 1, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  3. The Music Division's “salmon file,” an index to correspondence in special collections, lists seventeen special collections that contain letters of Marian MacDowell. For information on how to locate these and other correspondence, consult “Using the Collections” in the Music Division section. Back to text
  4. “Writings: Autobiographical,” page I-9, box 39, folder 6, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  5. Ibid., pages I-43 through I-44. Back to text
  6. “Writings: Autobiographical,” unnumbered pages, box 39, folder 7, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  7. “Writings: Autobiographical,” page I-114a, box 39, folder 6, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  8. “Writings about MacDowell Colony,” page II-82, box 40, folder 5, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  9. The library's holdings of the Trained Nurse and Hospital Review do not include the June 1926 issue, but a copy of the article is located with the diary excerpt in box 1 of the Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  10. “Writings about MacDowell Colony,” page II-31, box 40, folder 5, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  11. Mary Mears, “The Work and Home of Edward MacDowell, Musician,” The Craftsman 16 (July 1909; N1.C87 GenColl). Back to text
  12. “Writings: Autobiographical,” page I-122, box 39, folder 6, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  13. Nadia Boulanger to Mrs. MacDowell, no date, box 42, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  14. Edward MacDowell Association annual reports, box 72, Records of the MacDowell Colony, MSS; Paul V. Beckley, “Mrs. MacDowell Honored Today for Art Colony,” New York Herald Tribune, August 15, 1952, box 79, Records of the MacDowell Colony, MSS. Back to text
  15. Ida Clyde Clarke, “Mrs. Edward MacDowell and Her Great Work for America,” Pictorial Review (March 1925; TT500.P6 GenColl; microfilm 01104 reel 1487-88 MicRR), 100. Back to text
  16. Interview with Aaron Copland during intermission of a New York Philharmonic broadcast, May 5, 1957. MacDowell Colony audio material (LWO 15821), Recorded Sound Section, MBRS. Back to text
  17. “A List of the Artists who have been granted residence at the MacDowell Colony (1910 -1953),” box 72, Records of the MacDowell Colony, MSS. Back to text
  18. See Rollo Walter Brown, “Mrs. MacDowell and Her Colony,” Atlantic Monthly (July 1949; AP2.A8 GenColl; microfilm 03388 MicRR); “Life Visits the MacDowell Colony,” Life (August 23, 1948); Jerome Beatty, “Pilot on the Glory Road,” Reader's Digest (October 1937); Pearl Strachan Hurd, “Artists' Winter Haven,” Christian Science Monitor (February 4, 1956). N&CPR. Back to text
  19. Time (August 25, 1952); “Peterborough Paean,” Newsweek (August 25, 1952; AP2.N6772 GenColl; microfilm 01125 MicRR); Olin Downes, “Colony of the Arts,” New York Times, Sunday, August 24, 1952. N&CPR. Back to text
  20. Anthony Tommasini, “A Studio of One's Own: MacDowell Memories,” Boston Globe, 23 February 1992, sec. B; D. Quincy Whitney, “MacDowell Colony: A Place of the Heart for Poet Vaeth,” Boston Globe, August 9, 1992, sec. NH; “MacDowell Colony Celebration,” American Artist (July 1996); Grace Glueck, “Fruitful Months in the Country,” New York Times, January 31,1997, late New York edition, sec. C. N&CPR. Back to text
  21. David Felts' Column, Urbana, Illinois, Courier, August 29, 1956, box 39, Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection, MUS. Back to text
  22. The Peterborough Transcript, Thursday, August 21, 1952, box 79, Records of the MacDowell Colony, MSS. Back to text