On my trip up to Washington from Texas in January 2011, as my dad and I were driving on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge from Portland to the Tri-Cities, we noticed a huge mansion across the river on the Washington side, popping up in the middle of the desert seemingly out of nowhere. There was nothing else around it for a few miles, and it puzzled us why there would be such a large house stuck on the side of a mountain towering over the river. I asked a friend about it after we arrived in the Tri-Cities, and she immediately knew which house we were referring to: “Oh, you’re talking about Maryhill. It’s an art museum. Add that to your list of places you should go while in the Northwest.”
I did add it to my list, and on a recent road trip my friend Jen and I made plans to stop in and see what the museum is all about. Maryhill’s website touts it as “Without question, one of the most unusual and enchanting museums in America.” That’s a big claim to live up to when you’re perched on the side of a mountain a few hours’ drive from a metropolitan area.
Before we discuss the oddity that is this charming little collection of art, however, let me first mention the Stonehenge monument three miles to the east on Highway 14. I was driving along at a nice clip on our way to Maryhill and had to make a sliding stop and turn on two wheels to keep from missing the turn-off for the monument — but there was no way we were going to pass up seeing a replica of Stonehenge overlooking the Columbia, with a windmill farm in the background. Sam Hill, an influential Washington businessman, built the Maryhill version of Stonehenge to be a memorial for local soldiers killed in WWI, as a way of making a statement about the sacrifice of young lives to the cause of war. I really had no idea when I left my house that morning that I would be visiting Stonehenge in rural Washington before the day was out.
The Maryhill Museum itself was a very pleasant stop on our way to spend a couple of days in the Columbia River Gorge, and I recommend it for anyone traveling that direction. The varying collections on each floor are unique and seemingly random, but I was fascinated to read the placards telling how they were all connected — household and personal effects from Queen Marie of Romania (who??), Eastern Orthodox icons, a large number of drawings and sculptures by Auguste Rodin (including a plaster of The Thinker), 73 chess sets from around the world (yes, I did stop to count them), baskets from various Native American tribes, and a display detailing Sam Hill’s contributions to the road systems in Washington and Oregon. Among other things. Goodness.
It was the section on Sam Hill’s life and works that I found most intriguing. I’d never heard his name before arriving at the museum (named for his daughter), and he seems to have a rather depressing story as far as his relationships go, but I was interested to see how much he’d influenced the road system and a couple of the places I enjoy most along the Columbia. The Maryhill Loop on Sam Hill’s property near Goldendale was the first paved road in Washington state (!!) — and he was instrumental in building the Historic Columbia River Highway in Oregon and the Vista House at Crown Point, where you can stand high above the river (if the wind doesn’t blow you over) and gaze out in either direction at the grandeur of the gorge. It was also fun to note that Sam Hill was responsible for the Peace Arch at the border crossing between Blaine, Washington, and Surrey, British Columbia, near where my friends and I posed for this picture on a cold, cold day in January 2008. Who knew at the time that I was visiting my first Sam Hill monument?