January 30, 2023

The Language of Love: 7 Stories of Connection at Historic Sites

  • By: Haley Somolinos

Love is a tale as old as time. We asked our Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS) program sites and our National Trust Historic Sites to share their most compelling love letters. From artists inspired by their partners to White House courtships, here are seven stories of love, connection, and creativity.

While we feature Philip Johnson and President Woodrow Wilson in this piece, the National Trust recognizes that there is more to the story. Learn about Johnson's early history and connections with fascism, and Wilson's history with race and racism.

Emma Constant Holley and Elmer Livingston MacRae

Bush-Holley House (Greenwich, Connecticut)

A painting done by MacRae of his wife and twin children.

photo by: Bush-Holley House

‘Constant and Twins Seated at Table’ by Elmer Livingston MacRae, 1910. MacRae included Emma Constant Holley in many of his paintings and drawings.

Letter by Emma Constant Holley to Elmer Livingston MacRae during their courtship.

photo by: Bush-Holley House

An 1898 letter from Holley to MacRae, where she writes, "...Pose for you, my darling! Why I would stand on my head all day if it would help matters along any. Don’t think I consider it a hardship, sweety, it would only be a pleasure for me to help you the little I can..."

Elmer Livingston MacRae and Emma Constant Holley met in 1896 when Elmer attended art classes taught by American Impressionist painter John Henry Twachtman at the Holley family's Cos Cob boardinghouse. After those first blushes of summer love, Holley and MacRae overcame family objections and married, raised twins, and supported each other’s art practices for the rest of their lives.

During their courtship, they exchanged letters almost daily. In a letter dated March 29, 1898, Holley wrote to MacRae about his father’s disapproval of the match. This letter is also the first known instance of MacRae asking Holley to pose for a portrait. She would become one of his favorite models, and he created countless drawings and paintings of her during their life together (though none, as far as we know, of her standing on her head).

Philip Johnson and David Whitney

Philip Johnson’s Glass House (New Canaan, Connecticut)

Architect Philip Johnson and art curator David Whitney built the site and its collection during a period when the artistic contributions of gay men were increasingly acknowledged.

The two met when Whitney (then a student at the Rhode Island School of Design) attended a lecture by Johnson at Brown University. Afterwards, he approached the architect and asked for a tour of the Glass House. Their relationship began shortly thereafter, and Whitney moved in with Johnson upon graduating from college.

Whitney’s influence on Johnson is seen throughout The Glass House in its selection of furniture, objects, art, even plantings within the landscape. The two men used Post-it notes, often left on the leather-top desk in the Glass House, to update each other on their whereabouts on the 49-acre estate. “Gardening up above, love you” and “Taking a nap, heart heart heart.” They were together for 45 years until their deaths only five months apart in 2005.

Mariana Cook Portrait of Philip Johnson and David Whitney in New Canaan, in front of newly constructed visitors’ pavilion, Da Monsta, (November 18, 1995)

photo by: © Mariana Cook

1995 portrait of Philip Johnson and David Whitney in New Canaan.

Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt

Woodrow Wilson House (Washington, D.C.)

Shortly after Woodrow Wilson became president, his first wife of 29 years fell ill and died. Sometime later, he met the elegant widow Edith Bolling Galt, owner of a prominent D.C. jeweler. Quickly besotted, Wilson wrote Galt at least daily in the heady courtship between their meeting in April 1915 and engagement that October.

On December 18, 1915, Wilson and Galt married in a small ceremony at her home; no reporters were allowed. Galt later wrote that she wore a “plain black velvet gown with velvet hat trimmed with foura [feathers]…and had lovely orchids,” and the president wore “a cutaway coat and grey striped trousers,” but no photos exist of the couple in their wedding finery.

The Wilsons

photo by: Library of Congress

President Woodrow Wilson and First Lady Edith Wilson in a car in December 1919.

Gari Melchers and Corinne Mackall

Gari Melchers Home and Studio (Falmouth, Virginia)

When in 1902 a young aspiring artist boarded the S.S. Aller bound for Europe, she declared herself “prostrate and overjoyed” to discover the renowned painter Gari Melchers was a fellow passenger. Corinne Mackall already knew and respected Melchers’ work after having admired “The Skaters” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Despite a false start due to an insensitive remark made by the unsuspecting painter about “no-account art students,” the two were instantly drawn to each other, innocently flirting, dining, and dancing throughout the crossing.

After following each other around Europe, the two were engaged, despite the 20-year difference in their ages. On the eve of their marriage, Melchers wrote to Mackall: “It takes two to paint a picture, one to paint it and the other fellow to hit him over the head with a club when it’s time to stop, and in the future, you will have to be the other fellow.” In the spring of 1903, they married in a quiet civil ceremony on the Isle of Jersey.

Gari Melchers and Corinne Mackall

photo by: Gari Melchers Home and Studio

The Melchers at the time of their marriage.

La Brabaconne by Gari Melchers

photo by: Brown University

"La Brabaconne" by Gari Melchers.

Image of Corinne Melchers posing as La Brabanconne , 1905/06

photo by: Gari Melchers Home and Studio

Corinne Melchers (née Mackall) posing as "La Brabanconne" circa 1905.

Ann Vaughan Weaver and Ralph Norton

Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens (West Palm Beach, Florida)

Ann Vaughan Weaver and Ralph Norton were an unlikely match, as the 42-year-old artist was 30 years younger than the prominent capitalist. When she was recruited to become the first sculpting teacher at the newly established Norton Gallery, Weaver had been an independent artist for over two decades of her life. Norton and Weaver became friends, bonding over their shared love of art and classical music.

Ralph’s first wife, Elizabeth Norton, died in 1947. After six months as a widower, Norton asked Weaver to marry him. Although she agonized about what to do—she worried that marriage would interfere with her work and force her into Palm Beach society life—she ultimately said yes, with her art as a caveat. “If you are willing to take an artist for your wife and one like me,” she wrote him, “then I am yours. Gladly yours.”

Together they created a passionate, art-driven, and national legacy represented by the historic Norton House and Artist Studio, and the gardens showcasing her monumental sculptures.

photo by: Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens

To assuage Weaver's concerns about her sculpture work, Norton sends this 1948 letter: "About your work. I would never have asked you to marry me if I had thot (sic) it would be detrimental to your progress as a sculptor. Your devotion to your work and the sacrifices you have made to carry it on, have been an inspiration to me."

photo by: Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens

Norton in a 1948 letter to Weaver: "Dearest, You certainly have “knocked me for a loop.” You are on my mind all the time except when I am asleep. If I were inclined to dream it would be of you."

Ann and Ralph Norton Holding Hands

photo by: Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens

Ann and Ralph Norton holding hands.

Dr. James Washington and Janie Rogella Washington

Dr. James and Janie Washington Cultural Center (Seattle, Washington)

World-renowned Black sculptural carver, author, and activist James W. Washington, Jr. and his wife, Janie Rogella Washington lived in an unassuming bungalow in Seattle. Today, the site is one of the newest additions to the HAHS program. While working at a cafe in Little Rock, Arkansas, Janie met James, a civilian electrician with the Navy. Married in 1943 it wasn’t until two years later that they moved to Seattle, where they would spend the rest of their lives. James thrived in this environment, thanks to the support of his wife and the flourishing Northwest School art movement. Janie shared and inspired the spirituality that shaped the art of her husband. In the early years, she was the sole financial provider while he pursued his art.

Two people standing in front of a home with maroon trim

photo by: The Washington Foundation

Dr. James and Janie Washington in front of their Seattle home.

After 50 years of marriage, the Washingtons renewed their vows in an anniversary celebration on March 28, 1993. In their program, the couple quoted a Malagasy proverb: "They let their love be like the misty rain coming softly but flooding the rivers."

T.C. Steele and Selma Neubacher

T.C. Steele State Historic Site (Nashville, Indiana)

photo by: T.C. Steele State Historic Site

"Selma in the Garden" by T.C. Steele.

T.C. Steele and his wife, Selma

photo by: T.C. Steele State Historic Site

T.C. and Selma Steele relaxing in the gardens at “House of the Singing Winds.”

Upon his engagement to Selma Neubacher in 1907, T.C. Steele found their newlywed home in Brown County: a piece of land with magnificent countryside views. Naming it the House of the Singing Winds, they originally conceived it to be a summer home and honeymoon cottage, but it became a full-time residence for the Steeles and a destination for artists, neighbors, and friends.

Steele wrote daily letters to Neubacher as he oversaw construction. He wrote, “How wonderful the winds sing in the trees here, and the great views do not grow old [...] I expect I got the finest prospect in this part of the county, and, sweetheart, how I long to have you here to enjoy it, and put your heart in it. Just a little patience now, and it will come.”

The pair were married for 19 years until T.C. Steele's death in 1926.

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Haley Somolinos is the manager of email marketing at the National Trust. She has a passion for places and the stories that they hold.

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