Very few Arts Associations own a colonial mansion on the National Register of Historic Places. In the case of the Marblehead Arts Association, the intent of the members who led the drive to buy the King Hooper Mansion has turned out to be propitious for both the artists and the mansion. Artists have a place to meet and hold their activities; the mansion has a dedicated group to take care of her.
This is the way it happened. The King Hooper mansion started life as a modest three story home with a fine brick cellar and a gambrel roof. Built by candle maker Greenleaf Hooper in 1728, it was originally set back from the road. Seventeen years later, in 1745, Greenleaf's son Robert used the land in front for an addition in the Georgian style which is now flush with the street. Perhaps Robert "King" Hooper, who had become a wealthy shipping merchant, wanted to "modernize" his father's residence!
The house was used by the Hooper family until 1819 at which time it was traded to Jason Chamberlain for the schooner Economy. Chamberlain's heirs used the front room as a dry goods store until 1888 when the property was purchased by the YMCA. (The third floor was used as a gymnasium!) Later the house was used as a tea room and an antique shop. By the 1930's the house was almost in ruin.
In January of 1938 "rumor" became unauthenticated news. The King Hooper Mansion was definitely to be sold, a purchaser already found would sign an agreement of sale the following day. The eighteenth century mansion on Hooper Street now waited its fate: either to be razed-its paneling, mantels, front staircase, etc., sold to the highest bidder-or the building converted into several contemporary apartments.
"I'll wait until eight o'clock tomorrow morning," agreed the potential buyer when called on the telephone. "If you can raise two hundred and fifty dollars to bind an agreement to purchase, and will work with the same agent, I'll step aside and let you have it. No, don't thank me. Call it community feeling or credit the frightful weather."
Two hundred and fifty dollars in the 1930's was tantamount to the national debt! Who had such an amount of money or even a small proportion of it to gamble on the preservation of a building? People went in and out of the banks - the National Grand next door and the Savings Bank across the street. No one seemed aware that a house was dying save five persons that walked around it sadly.
"Two hundred and fifty dollars!" They might have been heard repeating to themselves as if by reiteration the required total might possibly be lowered. But something must have happened for by afternoon a plan was made and the five met at a house on Front Street to put the plan into action.
"Will you give a dollar to save the King Hooper Mansion for Marblehead? Will you give fifty cents? What will you give?"
Over and over again the plea was made. Over and over again
a doorbell rung and the question asked. By ten o'clock that night
$150 had been counted, recounted and stored in a cookie jar.
"There is one person I couldn't reach this afternoon " volunteered a member of the group. "She lives just down the street. "
"But you can't call her at this hour of the night."
"Supposing she would and we didn't?"
"A hundred dollars is a lot of money."
"The King Hooper Mansion is a lot of house and history and architecture."
It was a.m. by the town hall clock when a check for a hundred dollars was placed in the cookie jar along with the cash collection. At 8 a.m. the next day an option to purchase belonged to the five persons who were not altogether sure what to do with it. Fortunately, the plan conceived on Hooper Street, put in action on Front Street, was adopted three weeks later on Pleasant Street at the Legion Hall. The Marblehead Arts Association agreed to buy and otherwise preserve the domicile of the late Robert "King" Hooper.
Ever since that fateful day in 1938 the Marblehead Arts Association has had a place to meet, mount exhibitions and hold events. It has also taken its second purpose - the preservation of the King Hooper Mansion - very seriously, and renovations continue.
Today more than fifty years later, the Arts Association has grown to a membership of over 500, about one third visual artists in many media (painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers, etc.) and two-thirds supporters or "associates" Interestingly, in the early days artists from many artistic disciplines (design, music, dancing, drama and poetry) were involved at "The Arts". The King Hooper Players put on theatrical events, the poetry group held readings and frequent musical soirees were enjoyed. The current "Arts" is working to revive some of these activities.
Of course, there have been some changes over the years. In the "old days" people danced a lot more and "The Arts" held Balls at various sites on the North Shore - such as The Casino in Magnolia - where members danced 'till 2. Today, people tend to be in bed before midnight!
A significant area of change over the years at "The Arts" has been in the area of finances. Today there is an "Arts" endowment, investment counselor, a paid staff, high utility bills, like everyone else, and miscellaneous other expenses to worry about such as insurance, computer, etc. To cover these rising expenses, more income-producing activities are held, such as lectures, dinners, concerts, classes, and membership dues have slowly risen. Rentals of the Mansion are also vigorously promoted and guided tours of the Mansion and its formal garden, designed in 1942 by Arthur Shurcliff, are given for a fee. As always, "The Arts" receives a commission from the sale of art in its galleries.
J.S. Copley painted a portrait of Robert Hooper in the 18th century, a copy of which hangs in the Mansion today. He looks out at us with a smile. Perhaps the "King" is happy that people who appreciate the arts are using and taking care of his house.
Gail Pike Hercher is a local artist/writer and Executive Director of the Marblehead Arts Association.