History etched in `silence'

Art: The life of Mary Elizabeth Garrett, one of Bryn Mawr's founders, is honored in a sculpture on the campus.

May 28, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A new sculpture named silence is making a splash on the Bryn Mawr School campus, where it's fast becoming a history lesson about the woman who defied 19th-century society's unwritten rules in co-founding the North Baltimore institution.

The life-size series of seven standing desks - each with a copper-plated book - symbolizes the often-overlooked life of Mary Elizabeth Garrett, the wealthiest female philanthropist in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She helped create not only Bryn Mawr, but provided crucial financial backing to start the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and ensure that it would be the first American university training ground for female physicians.

"Most people didn't think a girls' school was a good idea," said Drew Tildon, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Bryn Mawr, as she studied some of the sculpture and learned more about Garrett's life.

"It reminds you of the founders. That was when women were supposed to be artsy decoration for their husbands," said Mathilde Andrews, also a fifth-grader. "They were supposed to be delicate flowers who can't do anything."

Standing nearby was sculptor Brece V. Honeycutt, 43, happy to hear girls talking about Garrett, one of five women who founded the school.

Middle school director Rena Diana said the artwork, arranged in an arc to catch the sun, has provoked conversation and comment. "Out of curiosity, they've gone and explored and touched," Diana said. "They, the founders, exist as names, but this brings [Garrett] more into the center of campus."

Each desk has a steppingstone, making it easier for visitors and students to leaf through the sculpture's copper-plated pages.

The story in those shiny pages tells of another curiosity, a Baltimore railroad heiress of the 1880s - one who never went to college yet joined the vanguard of education for girls and young women.

Throughout her life, Garrett never gave up her callings and causes, from education to suffrage, applying the business sense taught by her father, John Work Garrett. He ran the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad during the Civil War and consulted closely with President Abraham Lincoln about troops, supplies and tracks.

"This is about facts that are forgotten, history that gets erased," Honeycutt said in a campus courtyard surrounded by stone buildings and tall trees, where she answered questions from several girls about the sculpture installed this spring.

Honeycutt said she delved through Garrett's letters and financial ledgers a few years ago when she was invited to create an original work for an exhibit on the stately grounds of Evergreen House, a nearby mansion that belonged to the Garrett family.

That search yielded inspiration when she discovered a passage Garrett wrote on the importance of having an indoor and outdoor study hall for the proposed school that was to become Bryn Mawr.

Bryn Mawr School opened in 1885 on Cathedral Street in Baltimore as an unusually rigorous college preparatory school for Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia's Main Line. The school was a fairly radical notion for that time, with an indoor swimming pool and gymnasium for girls. Now the school has about 900 students in prekindergarten to grade 12.

"I somehow saw desks," said Honeycutt, a Washington resident who grew up and attended a girls' school in Virginia. To the image of desks, she added books with pages of old letters and ledgers etched in Garrett's handwriting. In a barely visible touch, each of the seven books has a different letter to spell out the word that became the sculpture's title, silence.

As she looked through a book, fifth-grader Drew said, "She must have been pretty important to have a sculpture made of her account book."

Honeycutt explained that the names and sums came from a national network of hundreds of women - some from as far as Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis - who contributed to the founding of the Johns Hopkins Medical School through a "women's medical school fund." When Garrett donated $354,000 to the collective gift, she insisted that female students be admitted on the same terms as men. True to that vision, the medical school was coeducational from its first day in 1893.

"She knew the power of money," Honeycutt said. "She did the books. She probably should have run the railroad."

She read aloud one of her favorite quotes from Garrett's letters: "Knowledge is power and I for one am going to do my best to gain it."

Kathleen W. Sander, a historian writing a biography of Garrett, said of the sculpture, "It's one of the few tangible reminders of her. Brece really captured Mary Garrett, who was by nature quite shy. She was a behind-the-scenes person who made things happen as an astute businesswoman."

"She made her impact in bricks and mortar," Sander added, "but a lot of her buildings are gone."

But a few reminders of Garrett still exist. She helped to finance building the distinctive Gothic architecture on the Bryn Mawr College campus.

For her last few years - until her death in 1915 - Garrett lived in the president's residence, the deanery, on campus with Bryn Mawr College President M. Carey Thomas, another of the five school founders.

As 12-year-old Jordan Peters looked through the pages, she picked up on the sculpture's theme and its message seeking to empower girls and women. "A lot of times women are silenced," she said.

Honeycutt said, "That completes the story, to have it here and to have the pages read."

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