The history of Newton Hall is a potpourri. It mixes the story of an archaeological museum dedicated to Middle Eastern/Holy Land artifacts, the biography of Chautauquan Augustus O. Van Lennep, and a mystery which remains unsolved today.
And then there’s Ralph, who re-appeared in the mid-20th century, a reminder of the glory days of Newton Hall, known also as the Chautauqua Archaeological Museum.
Newton Hall opened in August 1881 and was demolished in 1930 to make way for the Smith Memorial Library. Its genesis: the missionary zeal of the Chautauqua founders, Bishop John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller, and the initiative of the Rev. J. E. Kittredge, founder of the Chautauqua Archaeological Society. It also reflected the late 1880s popular interest in what was termed the Orient. Though in the case of Newton Hall, it was Middle Eastern and Egyptian artifacts.
Newton Hall would replace the “Oriental Museum” which was on the the second floor of the Oriental House. The first floor was the bookstore of H.H. Otis, a publisher, bookseller and stationer based in Buffalo. Newton Hall’s purpose was to house an increasing collection of Middle Eastern/Biblical artifacts.
Jacob Miller’s $1,000 contribution to build Newton Hall gave him naming rights. He named the museum in honor of his wife, whose maiden name was Newton. The Aug. 3, 1881, Assembly Herald also lists Lewis Miller, J.J. Vandergrift and J.N. Gidden as contributors
Andrew C. Reiser, author of The Chautauqua Moment: Protestants, Progressives and the Culture of Modern Liberalism, describes Newton Hall as “a modest Victorian wood-frame structure with a large interior courtyard imitating the cavernous main exhibit hall of the British Museum.”
In an Aug. 14, 1883, Amphitheater address, Kittredge described the museum’s purpose.
“It is the aim of the C.A.S. to collect and preserve here for its student such casts and copies of the monuments of the past as shed light upon the history and chronology of the Book,” he said.
He also envisioned the museum attracting Biblical scholars, researchers and Sunday School teachers to Chautauqua. If it also housed a collection of Biblical artifacts as fine as any in the United States, so much the better.
In the same speech, he listed the many relics residing in the museum including 11 plaster casts of ancient monuments including the Arch of Titus. In The Chautauqua Moment, Reiser wrote “in 1887 Kittredge secured a massive donation from the Egypt Exploration Fund. The shelves of Newton Hall soon overflowed with valuable relics, including thirty lamps, fifteen pieces of pottery, seven roman terra cottas, twenty-four Greek earthenware vessels, five bronzes, seventeen military relics, eighteen statuettes, five coins and a stamped amphora handle. The collection also included hundreds of miscellaneous pieces from a series of British excavations in the 1880s.”
Reiser’s source is the List of Egyptian Antiquities by the Egyptian Exploration Fund.
Enter Van Lennep. Reiser wrote that he arrived at Chautauqua in 1873-1874 as a salesman for H.H. Otis. Chautauqua, with its burgeoning interest in biblical artifacts, and Van Lennep, with his knowledge of the Middle East and his personal collection of relics which he lent to the museums, made a mutually beneficial match.
Van Lennep was not just a bookseller. He had a reputation as an authority on the Middle East and Egypt. He was a committee member of the New York City Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and Near East and was listed as an honorary member at the 1858 annual meeting of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. There is also evidence that he was a book publisher.
Rev. J.L. Hurlbut’s Aug. 10, 1884, Assembly Herald eulogy completes the vital statistics of Van Lennep’s biography. He was born in Smyrna, Turkey, in approximately 1818 and died in his Montclair, New Jersey, home in October 1883. Hurlbut described his father as an “Hollander,” his mother “Asiatic.” Reiser claims that Van Lennep was a Muslim convert to Christianity. Hurlbut’s eulogy states that Van Lennep’s mother was a devout Christian and he was raised as a Christian.
As a young man, he left for England and came to the United States when he was 28 and became involved with the Sunday School movement. The 1880 Friendship Chronicle of the Allegany County, New York Sunday School Convention lists A.O. Lennep as a conductor of the event, a teacher and of more relevance to this article, is the note that “portions of Mr. Van Lennep’s famous Oriental Museum will be shown.”
He did not keep a low profile, creating a personality swathed in turban and long robes which became as interesting to visitors as the museum that was part of his charge. A July 21, 1976, Daily editorial describes him as going “around the grounds dressed up as a Mohammedan. He acted out the Mohammedan call to prayer daily for the educational benefit of the Sunday School teachers.”
“Mr. A. O. Van Lennep made a short speech in Arabic and another in English,” Reiser writes. “The sight of a fully clad Egyptian lecturing in the museum, bookended by a cast of Isis and full sets of clothing worn by Bedouin sheiks and warriors, must have been striking to Chautauqua guests and certainly afforded Van Lennep a measure of authority.”
However unusual Van Lennep behavior seems to the 21st-century observer, his eulogy describes a man who believed in the worth of his role. Hurlbut acknowledges that Van Lennep’s livelihood was linked to the Sunday School movement and his knowledge of the Middle East.
But, “It was his vocation, a work to which he felt himself called and which he was laboring for the cause of the Gospel,” Hurlbut said.
The museum faded away in 1905 or so and the building was used for whatever the need, including showing movies.
The mystery remains: what happened to the collection, particularly that part donated by the Egyptian Exploration Fund?
“No one knows,” said Chautauqua Archivist Jon Schmitz.
The July 21, 1976, Chautauquan Daily “From the Editor” says that the Van Lennep’s portion of the collection was moved to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The conversation might end there, except: In 1982, Allyson Shephard, a Bryn Mawr archaeology student, decided to answer the question.
What was the crated black granite statue in the Chautauqua Hospitality room? The answer was astonishing. Though Shephard nicknamed the 1,000-pound, three-and-a-half-feet-tall statue Ralph, its real identity is Merneptah, the high priest of the goddess Wadjet, who served during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II from 1290 to 1224 B.C.
The Institution auctioned Mereneptah (Ralph) at Sotheby’s in 1983 and received $310,000.
The saga of Newton Hall is over. But as William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead, it isn’t even past.”
The 1883 book The Growth of Christianity During Nineteen Centuries: Exhibited in a Series of Charts and Numerical Tables, co-authored by A.O. Van Lennep and A. F. Schauffler, and published after Van Lennep’s death is available on Google Books, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.