Asheville Archives: Ida Jolly Crawley launches her magical museum, 1919

RENAISSANCE WOMAN: Artist, archaeologist and poet Ida Jolly Crawley opened the House of Pan: Museum of Art and Archaeology in her Asheville home in 1919. This self-portrait still hangs inside the property, which is now owned by Howard Hanger.

In 1919, artist and curator Ida Jolly Crawley purchased a 25-room, Victorian style mansion in Asheville’s Chicken Hill neighborhood. Built in the early 1890s by Russian businessman Peter Demens, the house was occupied by a number of owners before Crawley took charge. Once in her possession, the Tennessee-born artist turned international student and traveler, transformed the property into the House of Pan: Museum of Art and Archaeology.

On Jan. 26, 1922, an unnamed reporter with The Asheville Citizen described a visit to the “large ancient and dignified house.” According to the writer, the museum was relatively unknown at the time. But its collection of rare antiques and oil paintings promised “a true adventure, provided you have the spirit that unlocks the mammon-closed doors of vision.”

Pottery from Pompeii, solidified lava, Native American relics, “trophies of the seas” and “the carnivorous lilies of North Carolina lowlands” were among the items on display. Along with these artifacts and plant-life, each room displayed Crawley’s original oil paintings. Some of the home’s ceilings functioned as a canvas, as well. “Overhead, in rich and blending colors, the sky and clouds smile down upon you — the work in oils of the artist, who has transformed dingy ceiling into a bit of the heavens,” the paper declared.

Beyond Crawley’s collection, the home’s hardwood interior, combined with its long history, triggered the writer’s imagination and wonder. “What ghosts of a bygone day troop through those high, wide hardwood halls!” the reporter wrote. “What peals of silvery laughter fill the great rooms as with the departed presence of a gay-clad host of merrymakers, have you but the imagination to summon back the mellow past.”

STILL STANDING: Built in the early 1890s, the former Museum of Art and Archaeology still stands today. This photo, circa 1950-60, was taken when the home sat vacant. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

Shortly after the article’s publication, notices about Crawley’s House of Pan became commonplace in the daily paper. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, the artist welcomed numerous visitors, as well as members of local religious and educational institutions.

On Jan. 11, 1926, The Asheville Citizen once again visited the museum. Like the paper’s 1922 piece, the trip was marked by enchanted wonder. “Here I was still in the city, but somehow the city seemed far removed,” wrote writer Alice E.N. Hutchison.

Crawley is depicted as whimsical and passionate throughout the piece. “She loves art and all that is beautiful, and if something she herself has done falls into that category, she makes no distinction, for with her, personality is lost in matters of art,” Hutchison declared. “And it also is in the way she says it — not with an air of boastfulness, but with a soft gentleness that is so much a part of her.”

At that time of the article’s publication, over 5,000 guests had visited the museum. Further, both the museum and Crawley were featured in separate sections of the American Federation of Arts’ book American Manual of Art.

Crawley received similar recognition throughout much of her life. The Paris chapter of the American Federation of Arts asked her to join its chapter in 1929. Meanwhile, that spring, the Nicholas Roerick Museum requested Crawley’s presence at the ceremonial cornerstone laying of its New York City site. And years later, in 1935, The Sunday Citizen reported that the Crawley Museum of Art and Archaeology was elected into membership in the American Association of Museums, “one of the highest honors of recognition that can be bestowed on a small museum.”

Crawley died inside her Chicken Hill museum and home on April 15, 1946. She was 78 years old. “Known for her achievement in archeology, painting, and poetry, she was the sole supporter of the museum which occupied 16 of the 25 rooms in her brick mansion,” The Asheville Citizen noted in the following day’s paper.

In 1973, Howard Hanger, founder of the interfaith church Jubilee! Community, purchased the then-condemned property. Nearly a decade later, in 1982, the home was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Hanger continues to live in the home today, operating the Victorian mansion as a cooperative housing organization; he shares the space with 12 housemates.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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