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To the Letter
Peabody Turns 150

By Catherine Pierre

As 1856 turned into 1857, Baltimore was not exactly a cultural center. There was no public library. No art gallery. No school of music. On February 12, 1857, philanthropist George Peabody changed all of that with the stroke of a pen. He signed a letter establishing an institution that he hoped would contribute "to the improvement of the moral and intellectual culture of the inhabitants of Baltimore." Today, the Peabody Institute houses one of the premier music conservatories in the United States, not to mention a library renowned for its architectural beauty and valuable tomes. As Peabody celebrates its sesquicentennial, we thought we'd take a look at its founding document, and some of its quirkier bits of history.

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 Academy of Music
[The Trustees] will make all such regulations as, in their judgment, are most likely to render the Academy of Music the instrument of permanent good to the Society of this City...

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 females."

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 others.

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.


The Public Library
... to be well furnished in every department of knowledge, and of the most approved literature; which is to be maintained for the free use of all persons who may desire to consult it...

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.

The original gallery.


The Lecture Series
... by the most capable and accomplished Scholars and men of Science...

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.


The Gallery
I contemplate with great satisfaction, as an auxiliary to the improvement of the taste, and through it, the moral elevation of the character of the Society of Baltimore, the establishment of a Gallery of Art...

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. Durand.

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.


One of the most impressive parts of Peabody's letter, as the United States slid disasterously toward the Civil War, was his vision: "My earnest wish to promote, at all times, a spirit of harmony and good will in Society; my aversion to intolerance, bigotry, and party rancor, and my enduring respect and love for the happy institutions of our prosperous republic, impel me to express the wish that the Institute I have proposed to you shall always be strictly guarded against the possibility of being made a theatre for the dissemination or discussion of sectarian theology or party politics ... that it shall never lend its hand or influence to the propagation of opinions tending to create or encourage sectional jealousies in our happy country, or which may lead to the alienation of the people of one State or Section of the Union from those of another."

White Sulphur Springs, 1869, George Peabody sits
with the most famous Confederate generals
of the day.

Return to February 2007 Table of Contents

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