Housed in a 19th-century stone Victorian mansion on six acres in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, Woodmere first opened its doors to the public in 1940. The building, grounds and the nucleus of the Permanent Collection are the benefactions of Charles Knox Smith (1845 – 1916) who wished “to awaken the spirit of, the appreciation of, and the knowledge of art… in the City of Philadelphia and surrounding territory.” Today, the Permanent Collection consists of more than 3,000 works of art, celebrating the art and artists of Philadelphia.
Woodmere’s core collection includes important paintings by renowned artists such as Edward Redfield, Daniel Garber, Walter E. Schofield, Benjamin West, Frederic Edwin Church, Violet Oakley, Arthur B. Carles, and many more. Woodmere’s nine galleries and salons including a grand rotunda and a uniquely designated Helen Millard Children’s Gallery, provide space for exhibitions and programs that serve the entire family. In the George D. Widener Studio, a converted carriage house, a year-round roster of classes provides outstanding art training to children and adults. The recent addition of the Children’s Garden provides participants of Woodmere’s Summer Arts Community Program with outdoor space to display and enjoy works of art. The Helen Millard Children’s Gallery also showcases exhibitions of student artwork from local schools.
History and Woodmere’s Founder
Charles Knox Smith (1845 – 1916)
He would seem an unlikely benefactor. Raised in the modest Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, Charles Knox Smith left school after the eighth grade, taking a job as a grocer’s boy. Fate stepped in when the owner of a local oil company offered the young man a job. He began as an oil wagon driver. From that position, Smith conscientiously worked his way through the ranks to become a partner of the firm. Ultimately, having mastered the art of business, he struck out on his own, investing in his own oil brokerage firm and subsequently a gold and silver mining company in Mexico.
But Smith was always cognizant of his origins and his difficult journey and was determined to give back to the community. In 1881, he was elected to the Philadelphia Common Council, a predecessor of the city’s modern City Council. He served in city politics within the Republican Party for 20 years leaving public service in 1901.
It was that year that Smith moved into his newly renovated home in the historic Chestnut Hill section of the city. The Victorian mansion, originally built in the 1860′s provided Smith with the space to actively pursue his avocation: the collection and celebration of art. In 1902, he added a 450 square foot gallery to the house, and, in 1912, he broke ground for an extraordinary two story rotunda gallery complete with balcony. Known today as the Catherine Kuch Gallery, the space remains the centerpiece of the Museum which Smith ultimately donated and dedicated to the city— Woodmere Art Museum.
Charles Knox Smith collected more than 2,000 pieces of fine and decorative arts dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. He died in October, 1916 leaving in his will the following stipulation: “It is my will and desire that the said premises, 9201 Germantown Avenue, together with my collection of paintings, antique rugs, statuary, vases, and objects of art shall be converted into a public museum and gallery…for the use and benefit of the community in which I have lived…”
And so it has. The legacy of Charles Knox Smith — a love of art and a commitment to the community — lives on. In honoring Smith’s connections to Philadelphia, the museum’s collection policy focuses on the art and artists of the Philadelphia region.