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Nellie C. Cornish (1876-1956) founded the Cornish School, known today as the Cornish College of the Arts, in Seattle in 1914. She served as director for its first 25 years. Cornish recruited artists such as dancers Martha Graham (1894-1991) and Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), the painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976), and the musician John Cage (1912-1992), who were little known at the time but were destined to become major figures in twentieth century arts. The Cornish School quickly attained a national reputation.
Mother to the Arts
No description of Nellie Cornish fails to mention her motherly manner, warmth and generosity, sparkling eyes, quick wit, and enormous energy. Hundreds of students called her “Miss Aunt Nellie.”
In her autobiography, Nellie Cornish reminisces about her father, a lover of literature and theater, who devoted evenings to instructing his children. He questioned teachers for assigning rote memorization of textbooks and was determined that his children learn to think for themselves. His lessons stuck. Nellie began to study, then to teach music. Questioning traditional pedagogical techniques, she sought out new ideas. She wrote, “As three generations of my ancestors were pioneers, I just had to be a pioneer; life always forced me to use my own initiative" (Cornish, 35).
As a child, Nellie Centennial Cornish (her middle name signified the year of her birth) lived with her family in a sod house in Nebraska, on a sheep ranch in Oregon, and in an apartment above the bank that her father founded in Blaine, Washington. The bank was forced to close during the depression of the 1890s and her parents moved to Spokane. From an early age, Nellie studied piano whenever she could, giving lessons and working as a governess to support herself.
At the turn of the century (1900), she moved to Seattle, where she gave piano lessons in a shared studio in the Holyoke Building. In 1904, she went to Boston to study the new Fletcher Method of Montessori origin. She then moved to California to embark on a frustrating career as a classical pianist and teacher. She decided that teaching was her calling, and studied with Calvin Brainerd Cady (1851-1928) in Los Angeles. He had coined the term “Music Education” and regarded the music lesson as the foundation for development of logic and critical judgment.
The First Cornish School
In 1914, Nellie Cornish returned to Seattle. With help from banker friends, she founded her own school in the Booth Building at Broadway and Pine in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. She created a school where students could experience the interrelatedness of the arts, including all branches of music, drama, the visual arts, and dance. She maintained that creativity should be developed in the average person, as well as in the talented, and that art’s ultimate purpose was enrichment for everyone -- not just the privileged elite.
With an uncanny instinct for quality and originality, she hired both famous and unknown artists for her faculty. An early recruit was her mentor, Calvin Cady. Before he had gained even local recognition, she invited Mark Tobey (1890-1976) to teach painting in his own manner. Sensing an enormous and unusual talent, she arranged a solo performing debut for one of her avant-garde dance instructors, Martha Graham (1894-1991), who became an internationally renowned dancer and choreographer. She recruited Maurice Browne (1881-1955) and Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne (1882-1978), founders of the little theater movement in America, and gave renegade composer John Cage (1912-1992) his start.
When White Russian artists fled their homeland in 1917 at the time of the Russian Revolution, Nellie Cornish went to New York to recruit them for her drama, ballet, and music programs. One was Peter Meremblum, who built the school’s chamber music program and its orchestra. He organized the acclaimed Meremblum Trio (later quartet) of faculty members that performed to appreciative audiences up and down the coast. Another refugee, Alexander Koriansky taught drama at the school for seven years, before resigning to go to Hollywood.
Parents readily enrolled their children. They obviously wanted to give them an arts education beyond what the public schools could offer. Within three years, Cornish had more than 600 pupils. Its events, successes, and its talented and humble director attracted enthusiastic media coverage, along with commitments from wealthy benefactors.
In the wake of World War I, women’s enthusiasm for the arts resulted in the founding of several of the nation’s major arts institutes. In Seattle, the post-war recession portended a financial crisis for Cornish School. A group of prominent, wealthy, artistically minded women and their husbands came to the rescue, forming the core of a board of trustees, called the Cornish Realty Company. Members included Agnes H. Anderson (d. 1940), David E. Skinner ((1867-1933) and Jeanette Skinner (d. 1952), Edgar Ames (1868-1944) and Anne Ames (d. 1956), C. D. Stimson (1857-1928) and Harriet Stimson (1862-1936), Albert S. Kerry (d. 1939) and Katherine Kerry (d. 1938), Horace C. Henry (1844-1928), and others.
The trustees’ purpose was to raise funds to build an appropriate facility for the school. In 1921, Cornish School moved into the picturesque, Spanish-baroque building on East Roy Street that was designed by A. H. Albertson (d. 1964) with Paul Richardson (d. 1939) and Gerald C. Field (1885-1965). When neighbors objected to the noise and sued to have it closed, the judge suggested that they move to the country.
Miss Aunt Nellie
“Miss Aunt Nellie” lived in an upstairs apartment at the school with her daughter, Elena Miranova, a Russian orphan whom she had adopted at age 10. She welcomed students into her home, and frequently invited groups of them for coffee, home-baked cookies, and informal meetings with famous guest artists. She was also quick to help students with tuition costs, since she thought it wrong for artists to have to justify themselves economically.
The Cornish School's artistic vitality flourished, but it faced repeated financial crises. By 1924, the original property owner, the Cornish Realty Company, was unable to pay the mortgage. A group, including most of the original benefactors, formed the non-profit Cornish School Foundation to manage finances. Nellie Cornish was named lifetime director of educational programs. In 1929, Agnes Anderson paid off the mortgage balance, once again rescuing the school from financial doom.
By the late 1930s, few original trustees remained on the board and the ranks of the faculty were filled with talented Cornish graduates. Nelly Cornish wanted to continue to move the school ahead artistically, but could only tread water within the constraints of the budget. She informed the board that she would need $15,000 per year above earnings to “carry forward the standard I have maintained" (Cornish, 256). In 1939, the board accepted her resignation.
Nellie Cornish continued her career as manager of a children’s radio program in New York and as director of a music school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. After her retirement, she lived with her daughter, Elena, and her husband, an airline pilot. They traveled extensively, meeting former Cornish students and faculty wherever they went. Anniversary parties were frequent, including her 75th birthday gala at Cornish School. She died in April 1956, three months before her 80th birthday.
An organization of women called the Seattle Music and Art Foundation assumed ownership of Cornish School in the 1950s, once again putting it on an even financial keel.
In 1977, the college, at that time called The Cornish Institute, became a fully accredited college offering Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Music degrees. In 1986, the college was renamed Cornish College of the Arts. Since 1994, the college has been led by Sergei P. Tschernisch.
In 2003 the college opened a new campus in downtown Seattle (1000 Lenora Street), in a major step toward a consolidated campus. Cornish College of the Arts is (in 2006) one of only a handful of accredited colleges of visual and performing arts in the United States.
Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman’s Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 269-272; Richard Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 247-252, 256; Berner, Seattle 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991), 92-94; Nellie C. Cornish, Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish ed. by Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne and Edward Nordhoff Beck (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964); Cornish College of the Arts website accessed June 29, 2006 (http://www.cornish.edu/).
Note: This essay was updated on June 28, 2006.
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Nellie C. Cornish (1876-1956)
UW Special Collections (Image no. 862)
Cornish School, Booth Building, Broadway and Pine Street, Seattle, 1916
Photo by Calvin F. Todd, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Image No. CFT0087)
From an ad in the Broadway High School year book for Cornish School, 1916
Courtesy Seattle Public Schools Archives
Cornish School, Seattle, June 15, 1925
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. PH482)
Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, 1999
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long