Saturday, December 14, 2013

Kate Sturges Buckingham Passes -- December 14, 1937

Kate Sturges Buckingham's most well-known contribution--
Buckingham Fountain (JWB Photo)
On this date in 1937 one of the great women in the history of Chicago passed away as Kate Sturges Buckingham died at the age of 79 in her home at 2450 North Lakeview Avenue.  She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Zanesville, Ohio alongside her parents, brother and sister.

In announcing Miss Buckingham’s passing The Chicago Tribune noted, “She was godmother to the Art institute; the collections for which it is most famous were her gifts.  She was godmother to the opera; at the time of her death she was a guarantor.  She was godmother to some 200 or more music and art students.  She was a heavy donor to the Field museum, to innumerable Chicago charities, to many, many nameless Chicagoans.” [Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1937]

Despite being one of the wealthiest women in the United States and one of the most generous individuals in a city blessed with a long procession of altruistic citizens, Miss Buckingham preferred that no credit come to her for the many contributions she made.  Later in life she ordered that her name be removed from the Social Register and severely limited her circle of friends.

Miss Buckingham was born on August 3, 1858, the eldest daughter of Ebenezer and Lucy Buckingham, in Zanesville, Ohio.  Her mother’s father, Solomon Sturges, was responsible for bringing the family to Chicago in the 1850’s.  At that time the Sturges and Buckingham families controlled a string of grain elevators in Ohio, Pennsylvania and along the Erie Canal.  It was sound business sense  to move to Chicago and in 1850 Miss Buckingham’s great uncle, Alvah Buckingham, constructed the first grain elevator in the city. [Schultz, Rima Lunin & Hast, Adele. Women Building Chicago 1790-1990.]

Everything that the Buckingham and Sturges families owned was obliterated in the Great Fire of 1871, their homes on the north side of the city, their grain elevators along the river, the first of many tragedies that would become a motif that ran through Miss Buckingham’s life. 

A second fire in 1873 gave rise to one of the earliest examples of Miss Buckingham’s generosity.  After that second conflagration, the 15-year-old Kate launched a drive to raise funds for a Christmas party to bring some measure of joy to children in the Cook County hospital. 

The Tribune describes the effort . . . “On Christmas eve the Christmas tree, heavily laden with gifts, was set up in the children’s ward and its many candles were lighted.  Tragedy swiftly followed.  Through some mishap the burning candles started a fire.  The tree and all its Christmas largesse burned down. Bur young Miss Buckingham, nothing deterred, set forth to raise anew money enough for gifts for each child.  And did.”

The family relocated their home to Prairie Avenue, the city’s most select street, and the family business, J & E Buckingham, prospered beyond measure. In 1882 Miss Buckingham’s father also built a grand home in Lake Forest, but despite its location on a bluff above Lake Michigan, the family continued to make its principal home in Chicago.

It was in the Prairie Avenue home that Kate and her sister, Lucy Maud, were educated.  It was in this home that Lucy Buckingham died in 1889, and it was there that Kate’s sister became increasingly incapacitated.  From the house Clarence Buckingham, Kate’s brother, and their father expanded the family’s enterprises to include banking, insurance, steel manufacture, and real estate.

Clarence Buckingham's prints were included in a exhibit
curated by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908 (
The family’s affiliation with the Art Institute began in the 1890’s when Clarence, impressed by the Japanese art that was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, began to collect Japanese prints.  Ebenezer died in 1911, Clarence died just over a year later, and Lucy Maud lingered on in increasingly poorer health until 1920.  All the losses must have further isolated Kate, a woman left alone in a house that mother, father, sister and brother had shared for her whole adult life.

She continued to collect art, though, following her brother’s lead.  Clarence had been a governing member of the Art Institute of Chicago for three decades and a member of the Board of Trustees for a dozen.  [Scultz & Hast]  After the death of her sister, Kate Buckingham gave her entire collection of Japanese prints, etchings and engravings, Chinese pottery and porcelain, Persian miniatures, Chinese ritual bronzes, Italian silver and English lusterware to the institute. [The Frick Collection.  Archives Directory for the History of Collecting in America]

She also furnished the Art Institute’s Gothic room in the memory of her sister and finished the Jacobean Room at the museum in the name of her parents.  In 1925 she gave her brother’s entire collection of fourteen hundred sheets of Japanese prints to the museum as well.

The "one-million dollar memorial," another legacy
of Kate Buckingham (JWB Photo)
Miss Buckingham also wrote a check to the Art Institute that was to be used for a great monument to Alexander Hamilton, about which more information can be found here and here.  Of course, her most memorable contribution was the donation that allowed construction of the great fountain in Grant Park, dedicated to her brother, along with a $300,000 endowment to provide for its maintenance. 

But here is something else that resulted from her generosity about which most people are unaware.  On February 12, 1912 Kate Buckingham bought a property of 81 acres in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.  It was not far from where a 55-room “cottage,” which her father had built near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, stood until it burned to the ground in 1899.

On the new piece of land Kate Buckingham built Bald Hill Farm.  After her death the farm, to which another 80 acres had been added, was sold to Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.  Mr. Koussevitzky was the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a man with a dream of one day creating a summer musical festival for the symphony.  In 1978 after the death of the Koussevitzky’s, the organization purchased the property, and it now lies at the heart of the Tanglewood Music Festival.

When she died, Kate Buckingham left a half million dollars to friends and relatives.  She left another $126,000 to her maid, chauffeur, children of her caretaker, her nurses, doormen and elevator men at the Lakeview cooperative building.  In today’s dollars those gifts would total over nine million dollars.  She left another $3.1 million for art and cultural organizations, including two million to the Art Institute of Chicago.  [Owens, Carole.  Pittsfield: Gem City in the Gilded Age]

The Tribune article that conveyed the news of Kate Buckingham’s death ended with “a well authenticated anecdote,” dealing with “one of her rare visits to the Continental Illinois National bank and Trust company, in which she was an important stockholder.”

“On this occasion,” the story went, “she stopped at the cashier’s cage to get money.  She had no identification papers with her and the teller asked if any one in the bank could identify her.  She cast a brief, flashing glance around the nearby desks. ‘They’re all dead,’ she snapped.”

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