As it were

Art museum owes all to altruist's travels

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The home and art collection of successful Columbus businessman Francis Sessions was willed to the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts in 1892, which eventually became the Columbus Museum of Art.
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The Columbus Museum of Art, an impressive institution, will undergo substantial expansion in the next few years.

Columbus has had its share of both fine artists and lovers of the fine arts. Many people have played a part in the growth and success of the museum. But if I had to point to one single individual who played a major role in bringing the museum into being, I would probably look to the remarkable legacy of Francis Sessions.

In 1878, his fashionable residence on East Broad Street became the home of the newly formed Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts. A year later, he was instrumental in forming the Columbus Art School. Indeed, many of the items on early display at the gallery were from Sessions' personal collection. It takes a special sort of person to not only share one's art collection with his fellow citizens but also to offer one's own home as a place to put it.

But then, Francis Sessions was simply not like most people.

Francis Charles Sessions was born Feb. 27, 1820, in Wilbraham, Mass. His family had been in America since 1630 and most of its members had lived in New England for most of that time. When he was 2 years old, his father died, and young Francis spent most of his youth at the nearby home of an uncle. He worked the family farm in the summers and, like many New England children, spent his winters in local schools.

Like some of the young men of his generation -- the youth of the years after the American Revolution -- Francis Sessions decided not to stay in the places where his family had lived for two centuries. Rather, he sought to make his fortune in the West. To many people in the late 1830s, the West began at about Pittsburgh, and anything west of there was the New Country.

Actually, by October 1840, when young Sessions arrived in central Ohio, Columbus was a city served by the Ohio Canal and the National Road and soon would be linked to the East by telegraph. Sessions looked around, liked what he saw and decided to stay.

He got a job with a local dry-goods store operated by one A. P. Stone. By 1843, he had worked long and hard enough to open a dry-goods partnership with a man named Thomas Ellis under the name of Ellis, Sessions and Co. Their store was on the west side of High Street only a few yards away from the main southern entrance to the brick Ohio Statehouse at State and High streets.

Sessions soon found himself reasonably well off for a number of reasons. He worked hard and sold high-quality goods. He also acquired wealth and status in another way: He married it. In 1847, Sessions married Mary Johnson, the only child of Orange Johnson. The Orange Johnson House is operated today by the Worthington Historical Society and is well worth a visit.

Orange Johnson had come to Worthington in 1813 and started a business making combs. Soon he was dabbling in real estate, building toll roads and eventually building railroads. In 1862, he joined his daughter in Columbus and lived there until his death in 1876. The combined business acumen of Orange Johnson and Francis Sessions made both men quite wealthy and influential.

But Sessions was much more than a successful merchant. Perhaps because he had seen his family broken by death at an early age, Sessions also possessed an extraordinary sense of social obligation to help those less fortunate than himself. He was active in his church, served on the boards of a number of colleges and the Ohio Schools for the Blind and the Deaf and Dumb. He served as president of the Humane Society, the Home for the Friendless and the Public Library. And during the Civil War, he traveled across the battlefronts of the war, bringing supplies and medicine to soldiers in need as part of the US Sanitary Commission.

In addition, he traveled widely to foreign countries and wrote letters to the local papers from abroad describing his journeys. He also was the author of more than a half-dozen books with titles such as In the Western Levant and On the Wing through Europe.

While traveling, he not only admired many of the art treasures of the world, he bought a number of them and brought them home. In 1890, a catalog was published of the works of art in Sessions' collection. It was 30 pages long.

On March 25, 1892, the long and eventful life of Francis Sessions came to an end. In his will, he left his house, his collection of art and his not-inconsiderable fortune to the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts and the Columbus Art School. Today, they are the Columbus Museum of Art and the Columbus College of Art and Design.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

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