Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Mrs. Thayer's Eclectic Collection

Kansas City’s loss became Lawrence’s gain on this day in 1917 when Sallie Casey Thayer agreed to donate her extensive art collection to the University of Kansas after enduring several years of frustration with KC’s inability to develop a significant public art gallery.

The donation, conservatively estimated to be worth $150,000 at that time, included original works by artists such as Winslow Homer, Robert Henri, John La Farge, Theodore Robinson, and Emil Carlsen, as well as 2,000 pieces of glass from virtually every era, a variety of Asian and Native American objects, antique textiles from four continents, and samplers and quilts from the US. It was bequeathed under the condition that KU provide suitable housing and display for the collection within three years. Thayer made the donation in the name of her late husband of 26 years, William B. Thayer, a partner in Emery, Bird, Thayer, a large Kansas City dry goods chain.

Born as Sallie Casey in Covington, Kentucky on Valentine’s Day, 1856, she was a great-grandniece of US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Her family became prominent in state politics and the Cincinnati tobacco industry. After graduating from a women’s college, she traveled throughout North America, eventually taking a trip to Kansas City to visit Isabelle Thayer, a friend from college. (The Thayer family also had a distinguished lineage with Kentucky roots – one ancestor was John Adair, Revolutionary General and Kentucky governor from 1820-1824.) She met Isabelle’s brother Will, who had come out to the booming young city in 1871 and had established himself as an up-and-comer in KC’s dry goods industry.

Will and Sallie were married in 1880. Their only son, William, Jr., was born in 1882. Two years later, Thayer became a partner in his dry goods firm, and by 1895, the flourishing downtown KC emporium became known as Emery, Bird, Thayer & Co. Thayer was a founding member of the Kansas City Commercial Club, forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce. His influence in the city and the success of his business enterprise allowed the Thayers extensive time to travel. The first article in the Thayer art collection was purchased in Nantucket in the early 1880s, a blue and white tile from an eighteenth-century home about to be razed.

In 1901, the Thayers made their first trip to Europe, where Sallie accumulated a number of significant works. They built a house in Westport shortly after their return. Known as “Sevenoaks,” it was located at the corner of 46th and Warwick. Unfortunately, William Thayer was unable to enjoy his wealth for long; he contracted pneumonia in early 1907 and died on March 31 of that year. Sallie Thayer never remarried. Instead, she indulged in her passion for art, and began collecting extensively always with an eye to improving the cultural experience of Kansas Citians, especially the young.

But her attempts to procure an adequate museum in the Kansas City area to house her growing collection failed continually, and Sallie Thayer resigned herself to displaying the art in her home. Enter William A. Griffith, who came to Lawrence to head KU’s fledgling art department. Consisting of only 12 students when Griffith arrived in 1899, by 1920 there were 300 students and four instructors. Griffith was aware of Sallie Thayer’s extensive collection as well as her mounting frustration over her inability to find a suitable permanent location for it. After considerable lobbying by Griffith, Thayer agreed to donate the collection to KU with the stipulation that an adequate gallery and storage facility be developed within three years. As it turned out, Sallie Thayer’s relationship with KU would prove a rocky one at times, mainly because the original period stretched into seven years.

According to her agreement with KU, the University was to have provided a space for the collection by the middle of 1920. In the spring of 1921, there was still no gallery and a storm blew out the windows of the west wing of Strong Hall, where the collection was being stored, soaking some of the boxes. Mrs. Thayer was outraged that this had been allowed to happen and arrived at the scene to begin removing her collection.

When word of her intentions to take her art collection somewhere else got out, Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen stepped in and informed her of the upcoming construction of Watson Library, which would allow the empty space thus created to be used for the Thayer Collection. But it was not until 1924, when the stacks in Spooner Library (now Spooner Hall housing the KU Archaeological Research Center), were moved to the new Watson Library that space was made available to display and store the collection.

Over time, Sallie Thayer became increasingly involved with KU. She often spent her summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod and KU Fine Arts students, especially young women, were chaperoned at her residence there. The students were not only able to experience the cultural life of the Boston vicinity, but they might also go on a boat ride with a local fisherman, or for a swim with a Portuguese sailor. Thayer was also known to purchase their sketches so they would have a little extra spending money. Back in Lawrence, she bought the Williston house at the corner of 13th and Louisiana Streets so she would have a home close by during her visits to KU.

In January of 1925, Sallie Casey Thayer fell ill while collecting oriental and American Indian art in La Jolla, California. William Griffith, who had since moved to California but apparently remained a loyal Jayhawk, went to her bedside after receiving notification of her illness from KU Chancellor Ernest Lindley. Because of the ongoing delays in creating an acceptable gallery space at KU, the final procurement of the deed to the collection had not yet been obtained. Chancellor Lindley’s secretary, Minnie Moody, had developed a relationship with Mrs. Thayer in recent years, and became the liaison between Thayer and the University. Moody convinced Thayer that Spooner Hall had been opened up to house her collection, and in March of 1925, Sallie Casey Thayer signed the final papers formally deeding her collection to KU. Death claimed her later that year on September 10.

Some items, including art objects from Asian and Europe and the Winslow Homer and Robert Henri paintings, are on permanent display. Others, such as textiles and Japanese prints, are displayed only periodically in order to preserve them as long as possible. Mrs. Thayer's initial gift of about 7,000 works of art has increased through gifts, bequests, and purchases, to more than 21,000 objects. But her influence remains, as the collections have grown in the directions she initially chose - East Asian, American, and European works in all media.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Some of Sallie Casey Thayer’s papers survive in a folder labeled “Thayer Collection” at KU’s Spencer Art Museum Archive. Interview with Joseph Lampo, staff member, Spencer Art Museum. The story of the Thayer Art Collection is presented by Carol Shankel, former staff member at the Spencer Museum, in Sallie Casey Thayer and Her Collection, Lawrence: Spencer Museum of Art, 1976.]