Hugh McKean is the kind of absurdly rich man this country needs more of.
A mischievous millionaire, McKean, at 84 is still drinking martinis with lime and bouncing around his own weird and wonderful museum, cajoling the tourists to experience art on their own terms and to ignore what a lot of academic gasbags have to say about anything _ art and beauty in particular.
McKean and his late wife's various philanthropic foundations own the world's most dazzling collection of art by the Victorian genius Louis Comfort Tiffany. This rich assemblage of windows, lamps, paintings, altars and jewelry is described by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysn of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as "the most personal, the most comprehensive and the most interesting collection of Tiffany anywhere." Its dollar value is inestimable.
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art here literally glows with Tiffany vases, Tiffany paintings, Tiffany glass and, most glorious of all, Tiffany's own windows. During his long life, Tiffany's studios turned out thousands of windows and other works, but Tiffany himself devoted his own hand to only a relative few.
"And we have most of them," McKean says.
A tiny portion of his collection is on display at the Morse Museum _ which, although overseen by trustees, is really McKean's institution. Named after his father-in-law, the museum is a simple one-story building on a side street; in a previous life, the museum was a garage.
Discussions are under way on McKean's proposal to build here in his hometown a large museum devoted to Tiffany and other American artists. In a warehouse, he has shelves of Tiffany vases and lamps and entire rooms of windows.
It is possible that McKean's art museum is the most unusual in the country. It includes works of a dozen premier American painters and potters (among them, Maxfield Parrish, John Singer Sargeant and George de Forest Brush).
"It's so very interesting the reactions you get from people," says McKean, a small, snowy-haired man in a blue blazer and club tie, as he shuffles through his little museum. "Some of them like it, and some of them it just drives them crazy."
Mostly, it's the labels that drive them crazy. McKean writes his own. He finds traditional labels _ which simply list an artist's name, birth, death and the title of the work _ "depressing, like an obituary."
So McKean writes, for example, of Tiffany's Rose Window: "Much of today's art is colored by a conviction that life is a shambles. Tiffany's art reflects his belief that life is a beautiful experience. If this window puts a bounce in your step as it puts a bounce in ours, you have got its message."
In a word, he is an American original. He keeps pet peacocks and lives in an aging mansion called Wind Song. For 19 years McKean was president of Rollins College here, but his fondest memories are of coaching its soccer team. A modest painter, he married money and had the good sense to enjoy it.
McKean was an instructor at Rollins when, at age 38, he finally married Jeannette Genius, an heir to the great fortune of Charles Hosmer Morse, whose company, Morse-Fairbanks, made machinery used to power the Industrial Age. Morse also owned land, a lot of land.
When Hugh and Jeannette first began acquiring Tiffany's work, the artist was viewed by critics as a relic, a kind of overstuffed chair with tassels in a world full of brushed steel and abstract expression. "He was a joke," McKean says. "He was a throwback to the Victorian age in a world suddenly modern."
When McKean was a young man, he spent the summer as an artist-in-residence at Tiffany's mansion, Laurelton Hall, at Cold Springs Harbor on Long Island. He remembers Tiffany as a feeble old man, deaf but still impressive, and from another world, the 19th century. The students would gather to hear organ music and to enjoy the art packed into Tiffany's palace _ plus the polar bear rugs, the fountains, the orchids, terraces, colored lights, glass walls.
"My Lord, the windows, this was the thing that really turned me on about Laurelton Hall," McKean remembers. "Light didn't just fall on them, no. The glass actually radiated light, like trays of jewels in a jewelry store, like something alive."
At the time, however, Louis Comfort Tiffany had lived long enough to see his reputation hit the skids.
"When I met him, he had been through the meat grinder," McKean says. "He was ridiculed, but I thought he was wonderful. He was 83 then. I'm 84 now, so I think I know how he felt."
After his death, Tiffany's great summer mansion was sold. The foundation that Tiffany created to keep his name and vision alive eventually abandoned most of the artist's instructions about preserving his house, his art and his reputation.
When Jeannette and Hugh went to Laurelton Hall in 1957, the gardens were overgrown, the mansion was burned, and the chapel was filled with old newspapers and bird droppings. Someone was storing old refrigerators in the main house.
McKean and his wife lifted from the scrap heap window after window. The material they salvaged from the wrecking ball would make up the backbone of their collection. The price: $10,000.
"Everybody thought we were wacky for wanting it," McKean says. "At the time, I didn't care about the glass; I cared about the man. Jeannette liked the glass, but I just liked Tiffany."
Jeannette died in 1989, leaving to McKean an enormous fortune, a museum and a warehouse full of treasures. He wants to preserve Tiffany's legacy in a more dignified way.
The Morse Museum today is so small that only a fraction of the art can be shown. The space is cramped, the lighting too electric, the ceilings low. Ideally, McKean says, he would like to re-create Laurelton Hall, where much of the glass was once set.
However, McKean's previous attempt to build a museum on some of his property in Winter Park was thwarted when neighbors became concerned that their property values would suffer. It left him bitter.
"There's no use building a museum where people don't want one," McKean says. "I'd like to build here, but if the city doesn't want it I'll go someplace that does."
The Morse Museum is at 133 E Welbourne Ave., Winter Park, which is on the northeastern edge of Orlando and can be reached from exit 45 of I-4. The museum is open 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $2.50 for adults and $1 for students and children.