To the Letter
Peabody Turns 150
George Peabody's instructions are interesting to read today. They were detailed — his letter went on for 28 pages — and included not just the establishment of a music school and library, but a lecture series and an art gallery. Shortly after Peabody made the bequest that founded the institute, Baltimore — and the nation — experienced a financial panic. The newly established board of trustees contacted Peabody and asked if he still wanted them to cash the check. Fortunately, he said yes.
By the way, the handwriting displayed here in the letter's opening and closing pages is not the founder's. The letter was drafted by John Pendleton Kennedy (shown at right), first president of the Peabody board.
The new academy's first director was Civil War Brigadier
General James Monroe Deems. He composed the first American
oratorio, Nebuchadnezzar, and though somewhat deaf, was
known to conduct with flair. In 1871, Danish composer Asger
Hamerik became director; he was considered the first
visionary to guide the academy. The school would attract
scores of musical luminaries over the ensuing decades.
Horowitz, Piatigorski, Segovia, Rubenstein, Stravinksy,
Shostakovich, Previn, and Bobby McFerrin presented
recitals. Tchaikovsky was guest of honor at a dinner that
proved so tedious he nearly fell asleep. Peabody attracted
writer Russell Baker, A&S '47, for a different reason. In
Growing Up, he notes a friend's description: "The densest
concentration of available women was Mount Vernon Place,
where apartments were packed with sex-crazed musical
|Leonard Bernstein (center, seated on wall) visits Peabody in 1961 for the Young Conductor's project.||
The academy proved to be the incubator of Baltimore's
musical establishment. In 1915, a group of Peabody men
called the Florestan Club founded the Baltimore Symphony
Orchestra. In 1932, alumnus Eugene Martinet started the
Baltimore Civic Opera, forerunner of the Baltimore Opera
Company. Peabody musicians also formed Baltimore's Choral
Arts Society, Concert Artists, and Handel Choir, among
The "Academy" became the "Conservatory" in 1874, and joined Hopkins as an academic division in 1977. Today 700 graduates and undergraduates attend; more than 1,700 students are enrolled in the Preparatory.
John Dos Passos
in the library.
Photo courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society
Architect Edmund G. Lind designed the magnificent Peabody
Library, which the institute's first provost, Nathaniel
Morison, dubbed a "cathedral of books" because of the
beauty of its reading room. Librarian John Morris' first
order of business was to compile a "Desiderata" — a
list of 20,000 sought-after books — to be printed and
distributed in 1861. Within 10 years, the library had
50,000 books, and today houses some 300,000 volumes. H.L.
Mencken, Daniel Coit Gilman, Sidney Lanier, and John Dos
Passos all regularly went there to do work.
Johns Hopkins University originally was sited near Peabody, so its students could take advantage of the library. They don't rely on it as much these days, but lots of happy couples do. The library typically hosts about 50 weddings, receptions, and parties a year.
In 1866, the first lecture in the series mandated by Peabody took place, delivered by Joseph Henry, first director of the Smithsonian Institution and a founding member of the National Academy of Science. Later speakers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Commander Robert E. Peary (at right), and Samuel Morse.
The lectures attracted not only Baltimore's intellectual set but also lively neighborhood youngsters whose visits prompted the hiring of city police officers to monitor the lecture hall and restrain any unruly behavior. For decades, the institute hosted a Friday afternoon concert series for the benefit of "unescorted ladies." Including, one presumes, some of those sex-crazed musical females who drew Russell Baker's attention.
|Mary Cassatt's Young Woman in Black.||
In the early days of the Institute, the art collection was
housed in what is now Griswold Hall; it would eventually
include works by William Henry Rinehart, Mary Cassatt,
Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Winslow Homer, and Asher B.
Today, most of the paintings and sculptures that were part of the collection hang in other Baltimore museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum, and the Maryland Historical Society. In 1990, the state of Maryland purchased the collection for $15 million, to secure it for the public.
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