Who switched the Lou Henry Hoover portraits at Rockwood National Girl Scout Camp?
As I finalized the photos for Rescue Rockwood, my history of the national Girl Scout camp, I realized that the portrait of the former first lady and Girl Scout national president had been switched. When did that happen? Why?
The ballroom in the Manor House at Rockwood National Girl Scout Camp was dedicated in honor of Lou Henry Hoover on May 24, 1955.
(Yes, the camp had a ballroom, where else would they hang the chandeliers? That’s another story …)
The ceremony brought dozens of women to the camp in Potomac, Maryland, to enjoy a spring day with choral readings, songs, and lemonade.
The room dedication culminated with Mrs. Hoover’s granddaughter, “Little Lou,” unveiling a portrait of the former first lady. The painting was based on a photograph by Barton Crandall of Palo Alto, California, and showed Mrs. Hoover in her Girl Scout uniform, sitting alongside Weegie, her Norwegian elkhound.
When GSUSA sold Rockwood to residential developers in 1978, it only retained a few items, including the Hoover portrait and the chandeliers. GSUSA’s representatives repeatedly stated that the “chandelier … belonged to Mrs. Herbert Hoover.” That is simply not true. Rockwood’s original owner, Carolyn Caughey, scavenged building materials from the old British Embassy when the UK diplomats moved to newer facilities.
GSUSA also wanted the portrait of Mrs. Hoover.
I had assumed it was the original portrait with Weegie. But in photos taken in 1983, when items were being boxed to ship to New York, it’s a different portrait!! Mrs. Hoover is still wearing her uniform, but where’s Weegie?
I scoured the many boxes of materials in GSUSA’s Property: Rockwood collection. No mention.
Finding the answer took some detective work and more than a little luck.
During a recent research trip to the GSUSA archives, I stumbled upon several helpful clues. According to the Rockwood monthly report for May 1972, “A portrait in oils of Mrs. Herbert Hoover, which has been in storage at Headquarters, was received and hung in the Manor House over the Hoover Room fireplace.”
This monthly report was filed not with the other decades of monthly reports, but in a “Non-Federally Funded Projects: Rockwood, Quota Pathways” folder. I may write on “Quota Pathways” some day; but, for now, trust me that it has nothing to do with Lou Henry Hoover or painting. Or elkhounds, for that matter.
The second painting does show up on GSUSA’s archival system. The inventory entry notes that it was painted by Gleb Ilyin, and “cut down to half-length … in 1952.”
If it had been on display at headquarters, why was it sent to Rockwood? And why was it cut down?
Newspaper accounts from 1930 report that the painting had been commissioned by the Girl Scouts of California (specifically Palo Alto) as a gift to the national organization. Gleb Ilyin was a well-regarded portraitist and selected because his “strong, virile style should do full justice to Mrs. Hoover’s kind of beauty.” Mrs. Hoover sat for six one-hour sessions at the White House.
The completed portrait was enormous. At 6.5 feet x 4.5 feet, the image was larger than life. The portrait was dedicated in 1931 and hung at the national Girl Scout headquarters, at 670 Lexington Avenue, New York City.
When GSUSA moved to larger offices the following year, the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York moved into the building. GSUSA left the portrait behind, thinking Greater New York would display it. However, Greater New York thought GSUSA had taken the painting with them. Meanwhile, Lou was lost and alone, relegated to the building’s basement.
Seventeen years later, in 1949, a New York gossip columnist reported:
Jack Scott, owner of the Lexington Avenue Restaurant, found a 15-foot portrait of Mrs. Herbert Hoover in the basement of his place, which formerly was headquarters for the Girl Scouts of America. He’ll present the picture–which shows Mrs. Hoover in her Girl Scout uniform–to the former President.Dorothy Kilgallen, “The Voice of Broadway”
When it learned of the column, GSUSA sprang into action. National Director Constance Rittenhouse insisted that the painting was neither lost nor abandoned. Rather, GSUSA and Greater New York each thought the other had it.
By now, Mr. Scott had already delivered the painting to President Hoover’s apartment at the Waldorf Astoria, and GSUSA dispatched several people to retrieve the massive artwork.
While the painting had not actually doubled in size, as the column implied, GSUSA had no appropriate place to display it in its current office. Instead, the painting was sent to Washington DC and GSUSA’s Region III field office, then at the Girl Scout Little House. Since Mrs. Hoover had been instrumental in securing the facility for the Girl Scouts, it seemed appropriate.
The portrait lived in a cramped office until Region III moved to new accommodations a few blocks away. When a staff member unboxed the painting–using a BUTCHER KNIFE–she accidentally slashed the canvas.
Staff members were distraught, until they realized that repairing the knife wound provided a good opportunity to cut down the image. Artist Ilyin was consulted, and he gave them his blessing.
With a new frame, the reduced canvas was 42″ x 35″; still a large painting.
The portrait bounced around for the next few years. Other GSUSA offices and national centers were offered the picture, but none were interested. When the Region III office moved in 1960, the smaller canvas was boxed, sent from Washington to New York, and put into another basement. A dozen years later, it was shipped back to Washington, specifically to Rockwood.
The portrait took pride of place in the Hoover Room for the next 10 years. When Rockwood was sold to developers, the portrait was one of a handful of items that GSUSA wanted to keep.
Long-time Rockwood caretaker Brice Nash personally drove the chandelier and several paintings to the Macy Center, located outside New York City in 1983, but the trail goes cold then.
In 2006 the National Portrait Museum inquired about the portrait. Venerable Girl Scout historian Mary Degenhardt replied:
While many of the items at Rockwood were returned to Girl Scout National Headquarters before the sale, there is no record of what happened to this portrait. It may still be at Rockwood.Mary Degenhardt
Obviously, the painting has been located since 2006. Hopefully Lou enjoys her current accommodations.
That’s one mystery solved, but the original portrait also appears to have vanished without a trace. Where’s Weegie?
© 2023 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, Girl Scout historian