Restoration of Highland Farm To Preserve Hammerstein Legacy
MUSEUM IN THE MAKING: A group of residents and artists hope to turn Highland Farm, the former home of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and currently a bed and breakfast, into a museum of his work. An art exhibit and fundraiser at the Doylestown, Pa., property is May 16-18. (Photo courtesy of HammersteinCenter.org)
By Anne Levin
In the Bucks County, Pa., farmhouse where Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics for musical theater classics Oklahoma, South Pacific, and The King and I, plans are underway to establish a museum and education center devoted to Broadway history, Hammerstein’s career, and his years entertaining such fellow notables as James Michener, Richard Rodgers, George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Stephen Sondheim.
But making the museum a reality takes money. To help raise the $2 million needed to purchase the property, the Arts and Cultural Council of Bucks County and the nonprofit Oscar Hammerstein Museum and Theatre Education Center will hold three events at the farm, May 16-18. “The Art for Oscar” is an exhibit by 50 artists, showcasing works in various media inspired by Hammerstein’s life and work. On May 18, the property will be open to the public from 12-4 p.m.
“We know that the biggest hits written by Rodgers and Hammerstein were written at the farm,” said Mandee Hammerstein, whose husband, Will, is Hammerstein’s grandson. She leads the Friends of Oscar Hammerstein Committee & Museum Initiative. “The groundbreaking musical Oklahoma, which really changed the format of musical theater, happened at Highland Farm. So did Carousel, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music. So the property definitely inspired him.”
Lyrics like “The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye” and “There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow,” from the song “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” in Oklahoma, are said to have been suggested by views from Hammerstein’s study window at Highland Farm. He and his wife Dorothy bought the property in 1940, at a time when the lyricist was a bit down on his luck. He hadn’t had a major hit since Show Boat, written in the 1920s with Jerome Kern.
“They had come here and seen the home, which was a farm with some history of its own. They were considering buying it, and they saw a rainbow,” said Hammerstein. “That was it. They bought it and moved in,”
Oscar Hammerstein’s fortunes soon changed. Just a year after buying the property, he and Richard Rodgers established their famous partnership with Oklahoma. A string of other successful musicals followed. And it was at Highland Farm that Hammerstein met and mentored the young Sondheim, who was a student at the nearby George School with Hammerstein’s son (Will Hammerstein’s father).
“He had some unhappiness in his family life, and he found solace in coming to the Hammerstein home,” said Mandee Hammerstein. He even had a room at the house. He has said that what he learned in a summer he spent there was a real turning point in his life. Meeting Oscar was crucial.”
Highland Farm Bed & Breakfast has been owned by Christine Cole since 2007. According to Hammerstein, she is on board with selling to the nonprofit and having the nearly 10,000-square-foot building restored to the way it was when the family lived there.
“She bought it about 12 years ago. It had been through several hands and was being rented out to a heavy metal band, and was in really bad shape. She saved it,” Hammerstein said. “Now, it’s in beautiful shape.”
Cole met Will Hammerstein, who is an environmental lawyer, “by accident,” his wife said. “He was coming to town for a George School reunion. He had heard so many stories from family members, so he decided to stay there. They talked, and they got this idea for a museum.”
The plan would have the nonprofit operate the museum in the barn behind the house, with exhibits dating back to the first theater in Times Square built by Hammerstein’s grandfather, impresario Oscar Hammerstein I. The house would become a museum, with docents providing information about its storied past.
Raising the money to buy the property, which was originally 79 acres and its now just under five, is especially important, since it had already been approved for a four-lot subdivision when Cole bought it.
The art exhibit will offer works inspired by the Hammerstein legacy, priced from $40 to $5,000. “There is so much history that came from this place,” said Hammerstein. “So buying a piece of art would be a way to have a souvenir, created by living artists, of one of the greatest names in American theater.”
Hammerstein said her husband, who was a graphic artist before becoming an environmental lawyer, has devoted numerous professional hours to making the museum a reality since forming the nonprofit in 2011. She also credits the Arts & Cultural Council of Bucks County for keeping the dream alive. “They have been so helpful,” she said. “This is a great way to tie in exactly what they represent, which is arts and culture. They are helping save a landmark.”
For information about attending the fundraiser May 16 and 17 and the open house May 18, visit HammersteinCenter.org. The house is located on East Road.