You may think Ernest Hemingway's Birthplace, restored and operated by the Hemingway Foundation, is a finished project, but actually it's a work in progress. Photos of three paintings done by Hemingway's maternal grandmother, Caroline Hancock Hall?#34;enlarged to their original dimensions and framed by Paul Hamer of Frame Warehouse?#34;have just been added to the home's collection.
Virginia Cassin, foundation chair until last April when she turned the reins over to Allan Baldwin (she's vice chair now), is always on the lookout for things that make the home more authentic.
Reproductions won't do. First choice, of course, is the real thing?#34;actual objects that were in the home when Hemingway lived there, from 1899 to 1905. A growing number of these are on display in the house. Next best are antiques from the period, which Cassin has carefully collected over the years.
The efforts fall "between a treasure hunt and a detective story," says Cassin, who's developed relationships with Hemingway relatives and acquaintances, and always has her eye on the ball.
She believes passionately that recreating the home Hemingway knew from birth to 6 years old is essential to understanding him and his work. "Child psychologists tell us that by age 6 you are who you're always going to be. It's very special to think about the people who were here, the look of the place, attitudes of the family, art, music, religious soul of the house, or how you could go out the front door and practically be in the prairies, or go 10 minutes to the woods," says Cassin.
She's been at it since 1993, when her retirement as village clerk coincided with the purchase of the house. "People said, 'Ginny, you don't have anything to do.' I thought I'd spend of couple of years on it, but I'm still doing it," she says.
The birthplace gets about 6,000 visitors a year, from all over the world.
It was built by Caroline and Ernest Hall, parents of Hemingway's mother Grace, in 1890. Caroline was "a lovely singer, poet and painter," says Cassin, and "filled the house full of her paintings." She died in 1895.
Hemingway's father Clarence grew up across the street. After Grace and Clarence married, they moved in with her widowed father, and stayed until he died and the house was sold.
Cassin managed to acquire photos of two of Caroline's paintings a while back, and those were enlarged, framed and hung. But when she learned that many of the paintings went to Caroline's sister, Annie, she began looking for Annie's relatives. Hemingway's nephew led her to Annie's granddaughter, who lives in a retirement home in California. Sure enough, she had three of the paintings?#34;landscapes, like the first two?#34;and provided photos of them so copies could be made.
Hamer offered to frame them as a donation, using archival backing and ornate, Victorian-style, Larson-Juhl frames. He's got a Hemingway connection of his own?#34;his great aunt was friends with Ernest's sisters?#34;and believes Hemingway doesn't always get the attention he deserves.
"They've got some really thrilling things, incredible stuff over there [at the birthplace]," says Hamer, adding that he'd like to see Oak Park "recognize Hemingway's importance. He gets short shrift around here."
Two of the new pictures are already in place, and the third will be up soon. Cassin is turning her attention to the parlor fireplace tiles. There's always more to do.
"It's been such a privilege and opportunity to put together such a wonderful world treasure," she says.
Hemingway's Birthplace, 339 N. Oak Park Ave., is open for tours every day. Call 848-2222 or see www.ehfop.org for more information.