Early 20th century collecting was a matter of personal preference, and St. John’s had some of the finest collectors in America looking out for the “Harwood House.”
The death of Hester Ann Harwood in 1924 necessitated the disposal of her estate. The contents of her ancestral home were sold in 1925, and the house itself was sold in 1926. The purchaser was St. John’s College of Annapolis, which acquired the house “to be preserved as an outstanding Colonial building for such uses and purposes as the Board might. . . deem advisable.” From the beginning, St. John’s College sought to furnish the house with period antiques. Early records claim that a “substantial proportion” of original furnishings remained in the house. But an equal number of objects must have been sold in the 1925 auction, leaving large voids in the newly renovated rooms. During this period, collecting was a matter of personal preference, and St. John’s had some of the finest collectors in America looking out for the “Harwood House.” At the forefront of refurnishing the house in the 1920s and early 1930s was Richard T. Haines Halsey (1865-1943). Halsey was the acting Curator for the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and more than anyone else, Halsey helped to redefine the exploration of American decorative arts. He was a passionate collector who researched and published numerous catalogs on American treasures, sharing that knowledge with students from St. John’s College between 1928 and 1932. Here, he established the first scholarly coursework in American decorative arts. It was in Halsey’s and the College’s best interests, therefore, to have the finest objects on display at the Hammond-Harwood House–their classroom. It must be presumed that at least some of those objects came from Halsey’s own collection, while others were loaned by Mr. and Mrs. Garvan who had themselves purchased antiques at the 1925 auction. Before the crash of 1929, it seemed that the sky was the limit. Dr. Garvan told the President of St. Johns that “if he [ran] across any piece of furniture that ought to be in the house, to buy [it] and send the bills to him … ” When the Great Depression hit, attitudes changed. In fact, St. John’s was ultimately forced to relinquish its program and the house in which it resided.
On November 12, 1940, St. John’s College sold the colonial house at 19 Maryland Avenue for $42,500 in cash. It was purchased by the newly formed Hammond-Harwood Association, Incorporated. Initially, their methodology for furnishing the house was much like the one employed by St. John’s — the use of objects from the personal collections of museum benefactors. One of those benefactors was Mrs. Miles White, Jr. (Virginia Bonsal). White was already well acquainted with the Hammond-Harwood House, having served on St. John’s original committee to furnish the building. Accession records reveal that many of the objects White brought to the house in the 1940s and 1950s still remain on display. In fact, almost all of the iron, copper, and brass items on display in the colonial kitchen were donated by White.
White’s dedication to the fledgling house museum went beyond an interest in decorative arts; she was just as concerned with beautifying the house itself. In 1948, Virginia White, Rosamond Beirne, and Winifred Gordon campaigned for the noted fabric company Scalamandre of New York to donate some $11,000 worth of reproduction textiles to dress the house’s windows and replace its tattered upholstery. The relationship between the Hammond-Harwood House and Scalamandre became a symbiotic one as the museum’s window treatments became ubiquitous advertising for the company. Several of the original fabrics donated in 1948 are still on display in the museum.