The late Helen Smith left behind a rich legacy when she passed away in 1997 at the age of 103.
Born at Bellview on Ballenger Creek Pike, her legacy includes traditional-style paintings of landscapes and whatever else a customer would request, sketches, silhouette portraits, and tole-painted furniture, china, lamp shades, even coal bins. Her painting titled “Justice” is displayed in City Hall, and her painting of Frederick’s clustered spires, created in 1945 (the city’s bicentennial) and updated in 1979 was adopted as Frederick City’s seal and is still used today.
She was affectionately known as “Miss Helen” to those who made her acquaintance. She was one of the first women entrepreneurs in Frederick, opening an art and gift shop with a female partner on North Market Street in 1925 after working as head of the art department at Hood College for four years. She was also an expert gardener who loved flowers and birds. Her life, her passion for gardening and her art have been documented in multiple books.
Her impact on the local art scene also includes eight decades as a member of the Frederick Art Club, the archival collection of her papers and drawings at Hood College, and the Helen L. Smith Endowed Scholarship Fund for Children and the Arts, which funds visual art classes at the Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center in Frederick.
“She never stopped working. She had a lovely sense of humor,” said Harriet Wise, a friend and fine art photographer. “She remembered people and always had time to chat with someone. And she had a knockout garden!”
Smith lived alone and painted until her final days at the cozy clapboard house she bought in 1940 on Old National Pike, just west of Old Camp Road. The house is believed to have been owned by Barbara Fritchie, another Frederick heroine, and by the artist’s great-grandfather, George Smith. Smith renovated the house, filled the grounds with lovely flower gardens, and converted the summer kitchen into her studio and shop, complete with a large bay window that overlooked her gardens.
The house, summer kitchen and 11 acres of surrounding property were purchased by Frederick Church of Christ in the years following Smith’s death, with plans to build a new worship facility on the property. The house was at one time leased from the church as a transitional shelter for women who were residents at Frederick Rescue Mission’s Faith House, which provides a temporary refuge for homeless women and children. Now the church just uses the property for events and storage, according to Nick Ruple, church pastor.
A plan in motion
Al Weinberg used to pass by the house almost every day driving between Frederick and his home in Braddock Heights. Though he never met Smith, she and his mother, Alyce, were friends.
“About 3½ years ago, I said to myself, ‘What would it take to save the building [that was her studio],’” said Weinberg, who now lives in Frederick. “That planted a seed and I started making a few calls.”
He contacted the then-pastor at the church about the summer kitchen/studio building. It was not part of their future plans for the property and could possibly be demolished.
“It can’t be saved here,” Weinberg said during a recent visit to the little studio. “We needed to find a potential site [to relocate it]. That was really the issue.”
In the 1990s, a committee formed with a mission of relocating the studio to preserve it for future generations but was not successful in finding a new location. Neither the county nor the city was interested in it, and neither was Hood College, said Weinberg. The committee did successfully publish a comprehensive book in 1998 on Smith’s life, “Frederick’s Legacy: The Art of Helen L. Smith.” The group eventually disbanded.
But three years ago, a new Helen Smith Studio Project committee formed, with Weinberg, professor emeritus of journalism and former director of the communication arts program at Hood, and Peter Michael, prize-winning author of books on John Hanson and on the Underground Railroad, as co-chairs, and a third member, artist Connie Schlee, who co-chaired the Easels in Frederick event from 2013 to 2016.
“We needed a safe spot, a place where there could be some opportunities for public access and ideally a place where it would be put to good use,” Weinberg said. “Connie suggested Lucy School.” The private school in Middletown has an arts-based program for grades preschool to eight and is situated on a 17-acre farm which uses a 19th-century barn and farmhouse as classroom space.
“Lucy School fit perfectly,,” Weinberg said. The house was built in the 1800s.
He met with Victoria Brown, director and founder of the school, who agreed the school would be the perfect spot.
“People will be welcome to come and see the studio,” said Brown, “and students will learn about Helen Smith. We want to do our part to preserve her legacy.” Lucy School has an artist-in-residence program, and the studio can be used for that purpose, too, she said. The studio will be moved to the campus on a foundation located by the school’s organic garden, which is planted and tended by students.
Raising funds to move forward
The current committee is negotiating with a local contractor and a house mover on relocating the structure from Old National Pike to the school on Frostown Road. Weinberg said tentative plans include removing the roof and the brick chimney and possibly the fireplace, lifting the wood frame structure onto a trailer and pulling it to the new site, setting it on a new foundation, and then re-placing the roof, possibly without the chimney and fireplace.
Inside, the studio’s fireplace is flanked by built-in shelves and cabinets. A winding staircase leads to a floored loft area. A column of pie-shaped shelves are mounted in another corner. The interior walls and ceiling of the one-room studio are clad with natural pine boards. Some of the floor boards are rotted.
“This building, considering its age, is in remarkable condition,” Weinberg said.
He estimates it will cost about $100,000 to make the move and stabilize the structure at its new home. To date, the committee has raised about $56,000 “in outright cash or pledges,” he said, “including a $25,000 state bond bill we’ve matched in 2016. We’ve requested a second $25,000 bond grant which we expect to get in 2018. The Delaplaine Foundation donated $10,000 to the project. The project needs about $20,000 more to move forward,” he said.
If funding goals are met, the committee expects the relocation to take place in fall of 2018.
Though plans are to save as much of the building as possible, Weinberg said it’s not a historical preservation project.
“[The studio] is such an important piece of Frederick County history,” Weinberg said. “We see it as a living monument to Miss Smith. I think that’s most important.”