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A dream of art: Florence Sloane’s belief in the value of museums helped create an iconic Norfolk destination

A dream of art: Florence Sloane’s belief in the value of museums helped create an iconic Norfolk destination

Tucked away in a neighborhood overlooking the Lafayette River, Norfolk’s Hermitage Museum & Gardens gives off the cozy retreat vibe its name implies. But with up to 100,000 visitors a year, the museum is in fact a popular destination for art lovers from all over the state.

Built as the summer getaway for William and Florence Sloane, prominent New Yorkers who operated textile mills in the region, the Arts and Crafts-style home sits on 12 acres of wooded grounds that offer incredible views of the river.

While both Sloanes were art connoisseurs, Florence is the true author of the Hermitage’s story. She hosted parties with artistic luminaries and collected the works of female artists in the ‘20s and ‘30s – a revolutionary act for the time. To wander through her former home now is to travel back in time and visit a person with an adventurous spirit and varied tastes.

“She had a great appreciation for antiques, the hand-crafted, and the history of world cultures,” says Lindsay Neal, curator of collections. “She was pious as an Episcopalian, but also sought to understand the world and its people through religions and cultures that were different from her own.”

New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art inspired Florence’s lifelong passion. And over her life, she came to view museums as key pieces of society. In a 1934 letter to a friend she wrote, “The idea of tomb like houses for art treasures, etc., is a prehistoric [one], for museums are now living, active centers, where all classes, ages and both sexes come for help and productive recreation.”

Her dream for what a museum could be lives on decades later in the Hermitage. Built in 1908, transitioned into a museum in 1937, it features a 5,000-piece collection that ranges from a Chola Dynasty sculpture to a Romanian Shahristan rug.

The 42-room Hermitage is brimming with curiosities. The Great Hall showcases exquisite woodcarvings by Charles J. Woodsend – one of the Sloanes’ personal woodcarvers. Its Asian Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the Southeast, contains some of the rarest pieces in the museum, including a large marble Buddha sculpture from the Northern Qi Dynasty.

Other places of interest include the Gothic Drawing Room with its Moeller player and pipe organ, the Morning Room where you’ll find Florence’s precious Japanese Satsuma bowl, and the Dining Room, which contains a blue Persian carpet designed in the millefleur style. You might also stop in the Little Library where you’ll find hundreds of leather-bound books, Chinese snuff bottles and Peking glass.

“Because of the vastness of the collection, it's easy to overlook any part of it because there is so much to see and enjoy, but that's part of what makes it so special,” says Jennifer Lucy, the museum’s curator of community engagement.

The museum’s second level has a modern feel. The Florence K. Sloane Painting Gallery contains works by various 20th-century contemporary artists as well as the museum’s traveling exhibits.

“Each year we debut one to two new exhibitions, including one larger contemporary show,” Lucy says. “For the opening parties, we design one-of-a-kind outdoor night events that celebrate the themes and aesthetic of the show, often in collaboration with other talented creatives in our community, and they're a hit.”

As you stroll through the home, be sure to not miss its quiet charms, like the dining room's hidden staircase. There are even secret cabinets, doors, and light switches. Outside of the main area are beautiful gardens, a nod to Florence’s horticultural interest. You’ll find tranquility among the fragrant wildflowers and bubbling fountains.

But maybe one of the most interesting outdoor attractions is the Millstone Courtyard, proof of Florence’s belief that art could be found even in the simplest and most mundane of things. Florence began collecting the stones from old mills in 1931.

“We don't have any written record of her fascination but we believe it's because they were handcrafted and a link to the past. Florence was definitely intrigued by antiquity and these millstones were all hand-carved from stone,” Lucy says.

The estate is also home to several events every year, including garden workshops, gingerbread house contests, pottery demonstrations, and the always popular Sunsets on the River, a summer concert series held beside the river.

“It’s really unlike anywhere else in the area, this unique blend of historic mansion with gardens and contemporary art, all surrounded by the gorgeous Lafayette River,” Lucy says.

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