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The Merrick Art Gallery-A Brief History
by Robert J. Dyson
Milestones Vol 19 No 2 Summer 1994


In 1988 the County created the Department of Community Development. Robert Dyson was appointed as Director responsible for the Administration of the Community Development Block Grant Program, The Community Services Block Grant Program, The Emergency Community Services Homeless Program, The Emergency Shelter Grant Program and the newly created Home Investment Partnership (HOME) Program.

Spending my childhood while growing up in New Brighton in the 1940's and 50's, I knew about the Merrick Art Gallery, but I didn't really know anything about it. As a boy, I had been told that it contained a piano that was once owned by Stephen Foster and that it also contained paintings that would interest boys my age. This knowledge was enough to attract my friends and me to the gallery on a few occasions. We did indeed see the piano, but learned many years later that it wasn't owned by Stephen Foster but was played by him on occasions at the Merrick House, a hotel in New Brighton, destroyed by fire in 1854. We also viewed all the paintings with a bit of awe, and sometimes acting out and misbehaving much to the annoyance of the person in charge.

Since then my knowledge of the gallery has increased noticeably and my interest in art has broadened somewhat. Not that I am an expert on art of painting, but my appreciation in that area has noticeably grown too. Perhaps the single most important thing about the Merrick that I have learned and come to greatly appreciate is the importance of the gallery in terms of its cultural impact on this area and its historic significance for New Brighton and Beaver County. Unfortunately, the Merrick Art Gallery has not and does not receive the publicity or notoriety that it is so much deserves. It is truly a cultural and art treasure in our midst that all too many do not know about or realize its importance or significance. It is not uncommon to speak to persons who have lived in Beaver County all their lives and have never visited the gallery or perhaps have even heard of it even though they have visited art galleries in other parts of the country or the world.

The gallery contains a collection of French, Germ an, English and American paintings of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries collected by the gallery's founder, Edward Dempster Merrick. The collection is unequaled in Western PA and perhaps in the most of the rest of the country. It also contains interesting artifacts and memorabilia of the civil war and other periods of our history and development. A taxidermy and egg collection that I find fascinating is displayed there also. These items too were collected by the founder many years ago.

The gallery was established in the 1880's and is located at the comer of Fifth Avenue and Eleventh Street in New Brighton. The core structure of the existing gallery was built between 1849 and 1851 as a passenger station for the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad. By 1880 it was vacant and Mr. Merrick purchased it to house his works of an. In his autobiography written in 1962 Merrick states, "I made no pictures that were worthy to be put before the people for sale; so they began to accumulate. Having no place to put them, I bought the old railroad station in New Brighton".

Around 1884, Mr. Merrick added a second floor to the original structure to serve as his gallery and studio. At about that same time he earnestly began to buy paintings for the gallery and studio and realized he needed more space. In 1888, he acquired property adjacent to the south of the gallery and expanded it to include another two story building that contained a gameroom with a billiard table and his taxidermy collection, and a gallery on the second floor. Over the next ten years or so Merrick's art collection expanded significantly, much of it being purchased in New York City. Again in 1898, he realized the need for more space and purchased property to the west of the gallery that also contained a Methodist Church. Without removing the church, he constructed a second two story structure equal in size to the first. A courtyard lay between the two buildings which were connected by a covered bridge. According to Merrick in his autobiography, the church continued to operate until 1903. Merrick planned to develop it into a curio museum. The later history of the church is not certain but it is believed to have burned sometime shortly after Merrick's death in 1911. On October 30,1924 and article in the Beaver Falls News Tribune reported that the remains of the church were razed and a number of artifacts were found and removed by "curiosity seekers and small children".

The original structure that first housed the train station was built in the Pseudo Greek Revival style that lent itself to adding the second story and the other structures that remain today. The gallery was constructed with gabled roofs with skylights running the length of the buildings. In a plain, utilitarian style, the inside was done with white pine paneling and wainscoting dressing the walls. Rosewood shadow boxes were custom built to contain the paintings and to protect the carved or molded gold leaf plaster and wood frame paintings. The original beauty and tradition of the structure of the gallery can still be viewed and appreciated today. Whether one appreciates art or not, a visit to the gallery is a unique experience if one has even a modest interest in the architecture and construction of old buildings.

The years following Merrick's death in 1911, saw few changes to the gallery until 1959 when the current Merrick Art Gallery trustee, Robert Silas Merrick, meeting the requirements of being a lineal descendent of Edward Dempster Merrick, assumed that position of responsibility. Since then many changes have occured including a recent major renovation and addition of an elevator between the two structures. What was once a magnificent gallery is even more so today as a result of the changes that have occured in recent years.

It is interesting to note that electricity was not installed in the gallery until 1960. At the same time, the coal burning furnace was replaced with a gas furnace. Years of heating the gallery with coal had its deleterious effects on the paintings, so a concerted effort to restore them has taken place in the last thirty years and approximately 90% of the paintings have been cleaned and refurbished. A number of other changes have been made to enhance the viewing quality while maintaining the period flavor of the gallery. Track and spot lighting have been added to compliment lighting from the skylights. The original burgandy walls have been repainted while others have been covered with natural hemp cloth. In addition, a period room (circa 1850's) has been added and named, The Eva Mae Merrick Music Room in honor of the current trustee's wife. The room has as its centerpiece a square Chickering grand piano which once stood in the Merrick Inn where Stephen Foster frequently visited and often played the piano during his stays.

Edward Merrick was a seventh generation descendant of James Merrick a native of Wales who first arrived in America in 1636 at Charleston, Massachusetts. Dempster Merrick, as he is presently often referred to, arrived in New Brighton in 1836 and worked in his fathers "iron-car" factory before going West where he bought and sold land. He eventually returned to New Brighton and joined his brothers, Charles Morris and Frederick Silas, in a manufacturing business producing horse shoe nails. That manufacturing business became the "Standard Horse Shoe Nail" located on Fifth Avenue in New Brighton and remains in operation today making keys and locking fastener pins.

Edward Dempster Merrick, in the latter part of the 1880's had a dream and vision to create a center for culture for New Brighton and Beaver County residents. Although he did not live long enough to see his gallery and museum reach its potential as an institution nurturing artistic awareness and achievement, the gallery has truly become a focus for cultural and historic learning and appreciation. For those of us who are aware of the gallery's many resources and unique qualities, we can say his dream has been fulfilled.

Since becoming the trustee of the Merrick Art Gallery, Robert Silas Merrick (great nephew of Edward Dempster Merrick) and his wife, Eva Mae, have devoted their lives to the continuing achievement of the dream of the founder toward "the civilizing influence of the arts" in an industrial (and now, highly technological) age. With the support of various individuals and organizations, they have been very successful towards this end. A visit to the gallery will confirm this for each of you.

Note: The information for the writing of this article was taken from The Merrick A Gallery Catalogue of Nineteenth Century European and American Paintings collected by Edward Dempster Merrick (1832-1911) published by the Merrick Art Gallery Associates New Brighton, PA 1988 and other information provided by the Gallery Associates.

Entrance to Merrick Gallery