A landmark church-turned-mansion-turned-museum sows the seeds of public art
By Mary O. Parker
When a local rancher told me that hidden within an historic, oak-lined Canadian neighborhood awaited a 1910 structure with dozens of sculptures, a collection of art and rare antiques, and formal gardens, I thought he was pulling my leg. I’d come to this small town in the Panhandle to view its famous lesser prairie-chickens, not art. But upon discovering that The Citadelle Art Foundation provides sanctuary to several works by 18th-Century European artists, as well as works by such well-known American painters as Robert Reid, Peter Hurd, and Norman Rockwell, I knew I’d stumbled onto something special.
Purchasing Norman Rockwell’s First Day of School in 1972 set Therese and Malouf Abraham on the path to becoming art collectors. Today, the painting graces the walls of the red-brick, Colonial-style building that originally housed the First Baptist Church of Canadian. Therese, mayor of Canadian from 1982 to 1992, and her husband, Malouf, a retired physician, purchased the 8,000-square-foot landmark in 1977, and during the next nine months, transformed it into their home. They dubbed it “The Citadelle” to pay homage to their love of French culture.
Over the years, they made other renovations and purchased nine adjoining properties. In 2007, the Abrahams announced another transformation: They were donating the entire complex, along with millions of dollars in artworks and a new exhibition wing, for a public art museum that would encompass almost a full city block.
Deciding the prairie-chickens can wait, I pay a visit to check out the exhibits, collections, and gardens. First up, in a viewing area just inside the visitor’s center: a lively HGTV video from 2006 that reveals how the Abrahams converted the church’s nave into their living room and the overall care they took in transforming the building into their home. (They lived here until November 2008.)
Next, I pick up a TourMate (a listening device loaded with narration that correlates to various points on the tour) at the front desk. Today’s docents include the foundation’s director, Wendie Cook; when I ask if she’ll accompany me, she agrees. As we head toward the main building (sometimes called the Mansion), she tells me, “We encourage questions here. We want people to learn about the art.”
This approach correlates with what Gaye Greever McElwain, formerly with the Texas Commission on the Arts, later tells me about Malouf Abraham, who was appointed an Arts Commissioner in 1995: “He believes in increasing access to the arts for everyone.”
Cook prompts me to listen to my TourMate occasionally so that I don’t miss some of the entertaining tales narrated personally by the Abrahams. The stories prove not only fascinating, but often funny, too. One of my favorites revolves around the 1930s John Broadwood & Sons piano in the living room. Malouf’s practically breathless voice tells how the Smithsoni-an has three such pianos, but none in working condition: “The Citadelle’s piano not only plays beautifully, but is, at seven feet, nine inches long, larger than even the Queen’s at Buckingham Palace!”
A painting by Rockwell’s idol, J.C. Leyendecker, who actually generated more Saturday Evening Post covers than Rockwell, mesmerizes me. I find the glamorous shimmer of Couple Descending Staircase perplexing, and Cook takes a moment to teach me about Leyendecker’s skill at illusion, which involved omitting white and certain colors and hinting at shapes.
My docent next puts me before Louise Brooks Reclining, co-created by William J. Potter, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley. The seductive painting ranks high with viewers, many of whom enjoy searching for the spot where O’Keeffe’s palette knife left its imprint.
The Citadelle’s diverse mix even includes a piece of prow that came from a boat in southern India, adding both warmth and abstraction to the fireplace mantel overlooking the living room. However, the largest concentration of art is on the third floor. There, I discover Silk Crewel Work on Satin, early-1900s handiwork from Malouf’s Lebanese family, and a watercolor by Malouf titled Smoke Rising, a portrait of a woman against a smoky background.
Downstairs, a red-walled room off of the former nave beckons. Just inside, we turn and peer out toward the living room, which affords a view of an inscription over the Mansion’s front doors: “It is not always granted to the sower to see the harvest.” In the other direction, large windows frame the courtyard-style Four Seasons Garden, one of four jardines à la française designed by Malouf. Mossy bricks, overgrown with ivy, wall in the garden. Dappled light and a gurgling fountain give this space—guarded by four English lead sculptures (cherubic nods to each season)—an intimate appeal.
The Pavilion Garden, where Corinthian columns support a crested roof, reflects Malouf’s time at NYC’s Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture. Next, we head to the Hathoot Garden, a favorite for weddings and concerts. Inspiration for its central sunken meadow came from Malouf’s studies at France’s Château de La Napoule. Then, we venture into the Sculpture Garden, dominated by Coming of Winter: The Forerunner by William Pochial. The large bronze—a graceful figure, somewhat off-balance and shielding his eyes—portrays the artist’s concern with environmental balance in the modern world.
The Foundation opened its doors in June 2009 by highlighting J.C.Leyendecker’s contribution to American art. Since then, shows have included a Mary Cassatt exhibition and the Smithsonian’s In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits (with Canadian the only Texas stop). During my visit, there is an exhibit featuring the work of safari wildlife artist Craig Bone, a native of Rhodesia who infuses his wildlife with breathtaking vitality. One of the works on display—Evening Chase—depicts cheetahs so lifelike that they appear to bound off the canvas.
We return to the visitor’s center, where the gift shop beckons with its own objets d’art, and as I browse, I smile, thinking that this impulsive sojourn has revealed a cache of unexpected treasures.
From the January 2012 issue.