February 9, 2024
The Hotel Madison mezzanine was abuzz with conversation and anticipation this past Thursday as colleagues and friends of Rocktown History and Hotel Madison gathered around a delicious spread of hospitality and a black curtain that obscured the night’s main attraction. When the curtain finally dropped, the audience was dazzled by an enlarged reproduction of Emma Lyon Bryan’s remarkable 1867 painting of Harrisonburg (the original artwork hangs here in our museum). Bridging history and hospitality, the grand landscape offers a stunning glimpse into the past and invites hotel visitors to consider the city’s rich cultural and architectural heritage.
The story of this remarkable artwork begins in 1867 when Emma Lyon Bryan painted the beautiful and impressively accurate panorama of the town of Harrisonburg. In October of that year, the painting was displayed at the Drug Store of Dr. S. M. Dold, and raffle tickets were sold for $2.00 each. On Christmas day, Samuel R. Sterling, Esq., held the winning ticket.
For the next 139 years, which included another display in 1939, this time in the window of Friddle’s restaurant, the panorama remained in private hands.
After the painting had been found rolled up in the attic of a Harrisonburg home and consigned to Sotheby’s auction house in New York City, it was sold in October 2006 to the preeminent American folk art dealer David Schorsch and left Virginia. Robert Hopkins “Twig” Strickler had been the underbidder at the auction, but was able to negotiate a purchase of the painting from Schorsch after the sale. Soon after acquiring the painting, Twig and his wife Lorraine made it a full gift to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society in honor of their children and their families.
The Stricklers were clear that the artwork should be made available for the community to view and to learn from. When the opportunity came up to partner with Hotel Madison, it seemed the perfect way to demonstrate our shared commitment to preserving and promoting local history and culture Now, visitors to the hotel and local residents alike can enjoy this view into the past in a Harrisonburg venue.
Hotel Madison Director of Public Relations Eddie Bumbaugh remarked, “As a destination and gathering place for a wide variety of travelers, Hotel Madison recognized the unique opportunity we had to highlight the historic richness of Harrisonburg—for all to enjoy. The painting is strikingly beautiful and features mid-19th century downtown near the location of Hotel Madison. We hope that people seeing this painting reproduction will be encouraged to visit Rocktown History to see the original and to discover other local artifacts and exhibits.”
After the acquisition in 2007, Jeff Evans, then Chairman of the Museum Committee, announced the acquisition as “the most important single contribution ever made to our collections” since “The painting represents the earliest bird’s-eye view of Harrisonburg known to have survived, and many of the city’s most historic structures are prominently portrayed along with the adjoining countryside. It is not only a treasured masterpiece of Americana worthy of any major museum collection, but more importantly, to the citizens of Harrisonburg and the surrounding area it provides a priceless portal into the heritage and culture of our past.”
During the event, I explained the importance of Bryan’s painting as an historic artifact and noted several uses of the panorama in publications, exhibition, and research—including a genealogy request for an ancestor’s homeplace! I then pointed out properties that still stand in the community today, adding historical notes to the figurative walking tour around Emma Lyon Bryan’s Harrisonburg. As I said to the attendees, “This beauty has substance!”
What a privilege it was to represent Rocktown History at this special event.
Images, courtesy of Hotel Madison and Rocktown History.