Nineteenth-century botanical cabinet returns to Transylvania
When Lynn Swetnam Boone ’69 learned that famed nineteenth-century botanist Charles Wilkins Short’s botanical cabinet would be offered in a public auction last fall, she immediately set to work to give it a home at Transylvania.
Short, an 1810 graduate of Transylvania’s Academic Department, served as dean and chair of materia medica and medical botany in the university’s Medical Department from 1825-37 and was one of the preeminent American botanists of the time. His plant specimens make up the nucleus of the vast herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and are represented in herbaria throughout the U.S. At least 18 plants bear his name, according to biology professor Sarah Bray.
The 90-inch-tall walnut cabinet was custom made for Short in the 1830s, and he used it to preserve and organize the specimens he collected. When Short left Transylvania to become dean of the Medical College of Louisville, he took the cabinet with him. It eventually was acquired by historic Locust Grove, the Louisville home of William and Lucy Clark Croghan. William Croghan was the brother-in-law and surveying partner of George Rogers Clark, Revolutionary War hero and founder of Louisville. Clark spent the last nine years of his life, 1809-18, at Locust Grove.
“I’ve been a volunteer at Locust Grove for many years and started spending more time there after I retired,” said Boone, who taught history and humanities in the Jefferson County (Ky.) public schools for 28 years. “I’ve always known the cabinet came from Transylvania. It was from a later period than when George Rogers Clark lived at Locust Grove, so the governing board decided to auction it, along with several other pieces.”
Boone called Mark Blankenship ’81, acting vice president for alumni and development, and told him about the upcoming auction. About the same time, William Pollard, vice president and dean of the college, saw an ad about the auction and drove to Locust Grove to look at the cabinet. There, he met auctioneer Walt Robertson, who encouraged Transylvania to bid on the cabinet and bring it back to campus. President Charles L. Shearer approved, and Transylvania ultimately submitted the winning bid.
“We were told that a museum and some individuals were willing to pay a lot more, but Locust Grove asked them not to bid so that it would fall within the price deemed possible for Transylvania,” said Boone.
“We had a lot of friends helping us get the piece,” added Pollard. “The auctioneer didn’t charge us his buyer’s premium and arranged for Cross Gate Gallery to deliver it free of charge. Lynn Boone and I made gifts directly toward the purchase, and others have as well.”
The cabinet now resides in the lobby of the J. Douglas Gay Jr./Frances Carrick Thomas library. Plans are still being formulated, but the hope is that it will house rotating exhibits of botanical specimens and period instruments.
“It’s a magnificent piece,” said Pollard. “The side boards are one single piece of virgin walnut timber. It’s in its original finish and will be kept that way, but we had a craftsman who specializes in historic restoration clean and polish it, repair the cornice at the top, and do some work on the base where one of the original glass casters had broken off. It has some of the original brass pulls, and we’d like to have them reproduced to replace the ones that aren’t original.”
Both Pollard and Boone said they felt strongly that the cabinet should come back to Transylvania, where it originated.
“I’m passionate about Locust Grove, and I’m passionate about Transylvania,” said Boone. “This cabinet shouldn’t be in someone’s house. It should be at Transylvania where people can see it and appreciate it.”
The university continues to seek gifts to pay for the cabinet. For more information, contact Mark Blankenship ’81 at (800) 487-2679 or email@example.com..