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Historic Willoughby-Baylor House reopens with new exhibitions and updated Norfolk History Museum
Benjamin Adworth Richardson (American, 1833– 1909), Virginia Sinking the Cumerland March 8th, 1862, ca. 1907. Oil on canvas. Gift of The Brothers Anson T. and Philip T. McCook.

NORFOLK, VA.- The Chrysler Museum of Art will reopen the historic Willoughby-Baylor House and with it, the Norfolk History Museum, on August 16. The house remained open throughout the Chrysler’s recent expansion project with American Treasures, a well-received exhibition of collection masterworks, then closed in January 2014 for its own facilities upgrades. The historic house, one of two administered by the Chrysler Museum, also has undergone a complete reorganization of its displays and artifacts.

“It’s a landmark year for arts and culture in Norfolk,” says Chrysler Museum Director Bill Hennessey. “Last May we welcomed thousands of visitors to the expanded and renovated Chrysler Museum. With the reopening of the Willoughby-Baylor House, another Norfolk treasure is now redesigned and better than ever.”

The Willoughby-Baylor House is a two-story brick townhouse built in 1794 by Captain William Willoughby, a descendant of one of Norfolk’s founding families. After falling into disrepair, it was saved from demolition and opened as a house museum in 1970. Today the Willoughby-Baylor House and its gardens are the heart of the East Freemason Street historic district, in the shadow of MacArthur Center Mall. Nearby are both the Moses Myers House (completed in 1795 and also programmed by the Chrysler) and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Norfolk’s oldest building, completed in 1739).

When the Willoughby-Baylor House reopens, guests will enjoy new exhibitions about the history and art of Norfolk, America’s heritage port city, and the greater Tidewater, Virginia region.

The ground floor of the house greets visitors with changing special exhibitions. Its opening show is Democratic Designs: American Folk Paintings from the Chrysler Museum. With two dozen works by Erastus Salisbury Field, Ammi Phillips, Edward Hicks, and others, this exhibition demonstrates the surprising ambition and complexity of America’s early itinerant and rural painters. Most of these colorful portraits and landscape scenes are gifts from the pioneering folk art collectors Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, sister of Chrysler Museum benefactor Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., and her husband, Col. Edgar William Garbisch.

“This exhibition is our largest display of American folk art in over three decades,” says Alex Mann, Brock Curator of American Art at the Chrysler Museum. “Few museums surpass the Chrysler’s depth in this field, and it’s time to put our masterpieces in the spotlight and celebrate new research and discoveries.”

Created between 1750 and 1850, the paintings in Democratic Designs illustrate evolving tastes in art, fashion, jewelry, and hairstyles during America’s formative decades. Thematic groupings allow visitors to compare the skill of rival artists, and labels quote period newspaper ads to further bring these works to life. The most talented of these painters responded successfully to the invention of photography, but by the time of the Civil War, many had abandoned art-making for new careers.

On the second floor, the Norfolk History Museum sees its first major reinstallation since 2005, and features more paintings, furniture, and silver than were previously on view. Most of these are found in The Norfolk Rooms, a suite of permanent displays of Norfolk-made art and artifacts. Highlights include Cephas Thompson’s stately portrait of Norfolk attorney John Nivison, painted in 1812, and a delicately engraved silver sugar bowl by Jeremiah Andrews created around 1791.

“Andrews and other local silversmiths often embossed their wares with both their initials and the word Norfolk, building name recognition for this city as a source of fine craftsmanship,” Mann says. “We’ve built new cases to show off more of their work, and we will switch these displays periodically to keep the galleries lively.”

Some of the works in The Norfolk Rooms are recent gifts to the Chrysler Museum, while others are familiar local treasures. “We aimed for a balance between connoisseurship and storytelling,” Mann says. “Each piece was chosen to make the Willoughby-Baylor House both a destination for art lovers and a neighborhood jewel, connecting us to Norfolk’s past through these beautiful objects.”

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