FOR THREE MONTHS THIS SUMMER, ACROSS THE GORGE FROM THE REMOTE AND CURMUDGEONLY MARYHILL MUSEUM MANSION STOOD ITS COLOSSAL, TRANSLUCENT DOUBLE.
In a roaring expanse of arid glacial till sits the Maryhill Museum of Art, a burly concrete building. It’s perched on the edge of the Columbia River Gorge, five hours southeast of Seattle, engulfed by a landscape that miniaturizes any architectural gesture. Most of its dozens of windows have bars over them, or have been cemented over, like closed eyes. It is as though this Flemish-style château stumbled along the Lewis and Clark Trail, stopped to rest in this valley where the wind blows as violently as a waterfall, and fell into a coma. Actually, Sam Hill built it as a house for his family, but they never moved in. He converted it into a museum at the urgings of a modern dancer named Loie Fuller and with the help of Queen Marie of Romania, and now people come to visit, but the building does not wake up. Time magazine called it “the world’s most isolated art museum” when it opened on May 13, 1940. Its nickname is Castle Nowhere.
Entering is like going inside a stone. Through the tall doors, past a gift shop, and into the creaky great reception room of the mansion, it dawns on you that the nickname has as much to do with the remoteness of the location as it does with the building’s persistent napping, its ability to remain unconscious in the midst of a rushing natural spectacle, to insist on not being here at all.
Weirder still, this summer the Maryhill Museum had a double. It was a real edifice, of the same shape and size as Maryhill, just across the canyon. You could walk in and around it and climb the stairs. Two artists named Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo built it, out of metal scaffolding and blue construction netting, and then they tore it down again, leaving only a patch of worn grass, as if the double, too, had been a dream. Not only had it not seemed real, but the museum hadn’t wanted the double in the first place.
The Maryhill Museum is curmudgeonly in more ways than one. It has a faint regional reputation, mainly among tourists, predicated on the docile promise of classicism. On the surface, the estate is the perfect portrait of bygone aristocracy. The rigid building is outfitted with a collection of Rodin figures and fragments, and flanked by a manicured lawn and gardens that are home to a handful of strutting peacocks. With few notable exceptions, the world responds to the museum’s unconsciousness in kind, remaining blind to its evident oddity and its eccentric history of failures, disappointments, absurdities, and step-celebrities, and especially to the unhappy story of its founder, Sam Hill. He was great man and a crackpot, someone who could amass wealth and power but could not hang on to it, and who had an intense fear of invading hordes and a habit of commissioning highly irregular architecture.
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