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Christopher Monkhouse Obituary (1947–2021)

by Barry Bergdoll | Mar 09, 2021

From his teenage years until his all too sudden departure from our midst in January, Christopher Monkhouse collected: antiques, decorative arts, books, architectural drawings, along with an ever growing circle of friends who shared his passions. Even before he graduated from Deerfield Academy he was filling walls—his own and institutions’. “I had the good fortune to know what I wanted to do professionally very early in life,” he later recalled. “I curated my first art exhibition at Deerfield, and I have not deviated from that career track since.” He majored in art history at the University of Pennsylvania and, still a freshman, joined SAH in 1966, the same year he attended the Attingham Summer School in England and began a life long passion for decorative arts in situ.

Christopher returned to Britain to study with Nikolaus Pevsner at the Courtauld researching grand hotels in Victorian and Edwardian periods. Often it seemed that this was the era he would have preferred to be living in to judge by the full accoutrements of a breakfast place setting when even—I suspect—having breakfast alone, probably already sporting one of his signature bow ties. Summers were more rustic as he retreated to his native Maine for weeks to a house way down east at Machiasport, where guests had to share his delight in a vintage colonial-era house unsullied by telephone and hot water. In his first museum internship at the Portland Museum of Art he proposed a show on the history of Portland’s architecture, an expertise he deployed with his disarming charm forty-two years later for a memorable SAH study tour to the Maine coast (2006). Architectural drawings were from early on a focus of his passions.  

But even if he gave off an air of an eccentric antiquarian—he was very proud of his membership in the Walpole Society—Christopher was an activist and a doer, from a college-era internship doing research for the preservation efforts for Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Four major US museums were greatly enriched by his collecting acumen: Providence’s Rhode Island School of Design Museum (1975–91), Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art (1991–95), the Minneapolis Institute of Arts where he expanded the purview of the Decorative Arts Department to include architecture (1995–2007), and finally the Art Institute of Chicago (2007–17). With each move he immediately engaged not only the collections but the local architecture. In Providence one of many achievements was a massive survey (1982) of architectural drawings, Buildings on Paper: Rhode Island Architectural Drawings, 1825–1945, in collaboration with William Jordy. With that great transatlantic benefactor of architecture collections Drue Heinz, he not only built the Heinz Architectural Center but established its strength in architectural drawings and installed the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s San Francisco Office, sadly later removed. In Minneapolis he fully embraced 20th-century modernism, adding an unexpected period room— a complete example of Margarete Schuttte-Lihotky’s Frankfurt Kitchen (1926–30)—and staging monograph exhibitions on Ralph Rapson (1999) and Marcel Breuer (2002). Mistaken by some as a creature from another era, Christopher whisked me off to meet local architect Julie Snow when I first visited him in Minneapolis. I returned to do research on Breuer’s architecture in the region and even persuaded him that both he and his library, bursting the seams of a turn-of-the-century bungalow, would be happier in Marcel Breuer’s Kacmarcik House (1962) in Saint Paul. I had met Frank Kacmarcik, then a retired lay brother at St. John’s Abbey who told me his former home was on the market. “How could you resist?” I challenged Christopher—it’s a house built by a single man who equipped it for a vast library and an art collection and the patron is now in a monastery—a true Monk House.

Passionate about Irish Georgian architecture from his earliest studies, Christopher was especially proud of his dazzling swan song in Chicago, Ireland Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840, in 2015. Living with objects and bringing objects to life continued as Christopher set about curating his treasures in an exquisite Seaman’s House in Brunswick, Maine. Now his trusted friends of many decades are working to transfer his collections to the institutions he had named in his will. His enrichment of our lives and knowledge continues.

Barry Bergdoll
Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Columbia University


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