Friday, September 25, 2015

Lincoln Finds a New Home at Yale

The Meserve-Kunhardt collection of Lincoln photographs and Civil War-era images and memorabilia arrives from Westchester this fall and will have a new permanent home at Yale. (Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation, Yale photo)
Abraham Lincoln arrives in New Haven this fall as a new resident of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Yale Art Gallery.  A massive, stunning collection of Lincoln photographs and prints and other images, maps, books, and pamphlets from the Civil War era--about 70,000 items in all--is heading to Yale, a permanent home for generations to come.

The journey to Yale was not a long one in distance.  The collection will take a simple path from Mid-Westchester to the Yale campus--from Chappaqua, Pleasantville and Purchase to Beinecke.  But the journey is one that encompasses decades of care and storage and entails generations of a single family's devotion to Lincoln's legacy.  It was steadied by an obsession that passed from father to daughter to grandson and great-grandson. In the end, the journey's final leg was made possible by yet another family with ties to Yale.

The journey, the collection, the obsession and what the family calls "the glorious burden" were captured this past April in an HBO documentary, "Living with Lincoln," produced by the great-grandson, Peter Kunhardt, a Chappaqua resident. The documentary explains how the collection started in the late 1800's, how it grew, and how the family decided to  hand it off to Yale. (The documentary can still be seen on HBO-Go or On Demand.)

Over the past six years, most of the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection was housed in Purchase at SUNY-Purchase, in Pleasantville where Kunhardt runs a film-production company, and in Chappaqua, where Kunhardt and family reside.  It includes over a hundred photos of Lincoln and his family and thousands of images of Civil War-era politicians, soldiers, actors, and scientists. The photos show Lincoln in formal sittings, Lincoln giving speeches, Lincoln at his inauguration, and Lincoln at Gettysburg.  There is also the only known portrait of Lincoln gesturing in a faint smile.  The photographers include notable pioneers Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O'Sullivan.

The collection's origins date back to the Civil War and its aftermath, when a Union Soldier William Meserve chronicled his experiences in a diary during the War, describing gruesome scenes and battles.  Years later, his son Frederick Meserve, intending to publish the recollections, decided to collect photos of Lincoln and the War to accompany the diary.  The efforts to gather the material evolved into an all-consuming family project. A first book was published in 1911.  But the project to gather more treasures and photos continued.

His daughter Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt, a well-known author of children's books, joined her father in the decades of the 1900's, and the family published some material and accumulated more prints and related material.

Many of the images are familiar portraits of Lincoln, including those used as models for Lincoln's images on the penny, on the five-dollar bill and the sculpture at the Lincoln Memorial.  Some of the images capture morbid scenes after a battle, crowd gatherings before a Lincoln speech, or Lincoln appearing fatigued or crestfallen, but still managing to sit for a portrait.

Dorothy Kunhardt passed the collection to her son Philip Kunhardt, a Life Magazine editor, who helped publish more of the material in the magazine and in coffee-table books. Peter Kunhardt, Dorothy's grandson, has presided over the collection in recent years (along with other family members) as part of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.  (Peter, Jr., now runs the foundation.)

How does an enormous collection, one of the best of its kind in presenting the realities and details of that period, end up at Yale?

Yale happens to be the home of a library with resources and expertise to maintain proper care of precious collections and rare books. That helps.  Luck counts, too, as well as the family's collective decision that now is the time to find the the right institution in the right place.

Peter Kunhardt had no direct affiliation with Yale. (He went to Middlebury.) A daughter-in-law is a graduate of the Divinity School. Kunhardt's film company, which made "Living With Lincoln," also produces the PBS television series "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" and "Finding Your Roots," both featuring Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. '73, '74 MA. One of Gates' Yale classmates, however, brought the parties together.

Eve Hart Rice '73, a recent YWAA board member and now a trustee for the Yale corporation, knew the family and its collection. At a gathering where both sides were present, she "brokered" a relationship between the Kunhardt family and Yale and helped convince them that Yale would be a suitable home. The parties agreed, and the journey had reached its last lap.

As the Lincoln collection arrives, Beinecke Library at Yale turns 52 years old and will be closed for renovation for the next year.  Some of the Meserve-Kunhardt collection will be exhibited at the Yale Art Gallery.  A temporary reading room in Sterling Library will permit researchers and historians to view the collection during the renovation.

Explaining to the Wall Street Journal in April how it could be possible for the family to amass such a collection and sustain an obsession across generations, Peter Kunhardt said, "I think it's connected to what do you do with all our things when get to be our age.  We have all my father's stuff.  He had his mother's stuff.  And she had her father's stuff.  It went back to the Civil War."

Now Yale has it.

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