SUSTAINING BEAUTY From the Memoirs of Ninah Cummer

by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom
Players by the Sea debuted the world premier of an original play about the life of Ninah Cummer, whose dedication and generous gifts led to the establishment of The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, which was built on the site of her Riverside home, and opened in 1961. In addition to the land, her legacy included an art collection that served as the nucleus for the museum’s growth. And while her original home was torn down, great care was taken to preserve the wonderful gardens she had cultivated over the years.
In celebration of the museum’s fiftieth anniversary, Barbara Colaciello, Education Director at Players by the Sea, spent the last year researching and writing the play she has entitled Sustaining Beauty. The work is based on Mrs. Cummer’s memoirs, including journals, letters, and speeches. In addition to writing the play, she performed it for two nights at Player’s Theatre, with another special performance scheduled April 5 at The Cummer.
As an audience we learned so many interesting facts about Mrs. Cummer that we can only relate highlights here. She loved art and travel and filled every wall of her home with paintings purchased from all over the world. She loved gardens, and believed that gardens represented a common denominator between cultures, because after all, a rose is a rose, everywhere in the world.
Ninah Holden and Arthur Cummer met at the University of Michigan in 1892. She taught Greek and Latin in Michigan, while Arthur went to work for his father in Norfolk, Virginia. They married in 1897 and moved to Jacksonville where they built their home on Riverside Ave.
After Jacksonville’s Great Fire of 1901 destroyed 148 blocks of the downtown area, she and her husband donated tireless volunteer hours assisting the devastated population. Mrs. Cummer was one of the founders of the Jacksonville Garden Club in 1922, and an active donor to many charitable organizations.
A particularly interesting incident occurred in 1938. She and her husband Arthur purchased a prized collection of 24 paintings from a woman in Vienna who wanted to get them out of the country before German troops arrived. She sold the entire collection for only $800 to save them from theft and possible destruction. The Cummers held their breath as they waited for their arrival, fearful they would not make it out of the country, but finally got a call from customs that they had arrived safely.
In a pre-show curtain speech, Ms. Colaciello indicated that Sustaining Beauty is still a work in progress. She had in fact written some additions the morning of this show. For readers who missed seeing this play, hopefully the Cummer will make this an annual event and find sponsors so it can be done at local universities and colleges.
The set on Player’s Mainstage was both intimate and elegant, recreating the Cummers’ Tudor drawing room, with a patterned oriental rug in muted colors, a long settee, wooden furniture, and a large portrait of an English beauty in a lovely blue gown.
When Barbara appeared previously as Ninah Cummer to talk with the guests at the Member’s Opening event, she wore a vintage-styled lace dress from the period and had gray hair. For the performance of the play, which spanned several periods, she chose a much younger look, with a more modern hairstyle and a black dress trimmed in white.
Barbara asked the audience for feedback, since, as we have indicated, this is still a work in progress. My feedback would be to include a bit more about her husband Arthur. Oh, we learned he was in the lumber business, and that he played golf; she added a putting green for him to one of her gardens. From other sources we learned that he was a partner in a steamship company that shipped lumber all over the world. He died in 1946, from unknown causes. Still, we would find more information about him and his contributions interesting.
In her program notes, Ms. Colaciello extended thanks to Joe Schwarz, Executive Director of Players by the Sea, George and Bettylu Grune, who sponsor the art gallery located in the Players theatre, and to Hope McMath, Director of the Cummer.
Barbara Colaciello is not only a fine playwright, but a very talented performer and both were on display in Sustaining Beauty, as she made history come to life in an accessible format. Throughout, Barbara provided the audience with insights into the experiences, achievements and vision of a remarkable woman.