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A Timely Idea: Part Seven

This series, A Timely Idea, tells the history of the Music Academy of the West – a story of innovation, rising to meet great challenges, and transformational philanthropy. Be sure to catch up on parts onetwothreefourfive, and six.

Part Seven: Home

Helen Marso was an unassuming woman, a person who was generous to friends and family in need. In 1950, she was nearing 70 years old and had been employed by the Jefferson family for decades. She had never been fond of fancy clothing, nor was she overly interested in material possessions. She never married or had any children. When Mary Jefferson passed away in June of 1950, though, Helen Marso suddenly found herself in possession of a fortune. While the Jeffersons had willed the bulk of their estate to their niece, Alice Wetmore Brann, their longtime assistant was not left empty handed. The $180,000 bequeathed to Marso was a massive sum at the time, the equivalent to nearly $2 million in today’s money. One of Marso’s first acts was to purchase the estate, Miraflores, where she’d lived with the Jeffersons for years. She had no intention of keeping the 23-acre property, however, and instead offered it to the Music Academy of the West. Her only stipulations were that John and Mary Jefferson be recognized in some way and that the property forever remain a conservatory for training musicians. The Music Academy board at the time was deep in the planning for the fifth annual Summer School and Festival. The long-term viability of the organization was still very much uncertain, though, in large part because it had no permanent facilities of any kind. The Cate School in Carpinteria had proved a wonderful location for the first few festivals, but as the Academy grew and expanded it needed a more suitable arrangement. Marso’s proposed gift arrived just in the nick of time. The issue of the Miraflores donation was first raised at the Academy’s board meeting on January 23, 1951, but despite the incredibly fortunate situation, the acceptance of the gift was not a foregone conclusion. Helen Marso’s magnanimous act certainly solved the problem of a permanent home for the young institution, but it also created others. How would the Music Academy handle the upkeep? The taxes and money associated with maintaining the property? And Alice Wetmore Brann was planning to sell the Jeffersons’ remaining belongings, so how would the Academy afford to furnish the house?
After a lengthy discussion, board member John Franklin reminded his colleagues that they had often agreed the biggest thing standing in the way of a guarantee of long-term success was the lack of a permanent home. “We now have the opportunity to tell if this this true,” he said solemnly as he looked around the room. “Let’s give it six months and then we’ll see.” The board would accept the gift of Miraflores. Alice Wetmore Brann did, indeed, sell the furniture and belongings still in the house, but she also had her eye on something that wasn’t technically hers: two beautiful chandeliers that hung in the home’s formal living room. So, she struck a bargain with the Music Academy. She took possession of the chandeliers in exchange for a $1,000 donation toward the purchase of new furniture and an agreement to provide “adequate lighting” for the room. Later that year, in April, she also deeded a small amount of beachside property to the Academy and offered to take care of the estate taxes. The Music Academy of the West officially accepted “with thanks” Helen Marso’s gift during a special meeting of the board on April 11, 1951. The Academy’s offices were moved to Miraflores on June 1. Although the property was not ready in time for the 1951 Summer Festival, the public was invited to an open house in August that featured a performance by the Academy’s new chorus. The many full-sized bedrooms in the home were adapted into offices and faculty teaching studios, while the servants’ rooms became practice spaces. The larger rooms in the house were easily transitioned into rehearsal spaces and concert venues; the formal living room—the one from the Great Chandelier Bargain—became the central space. Today it is known as Lehmann Hall.
Nearly three quarters of a century later, it is clear that accepting Helen Marso’s gift of Miraflores was a masterstroke on the part of the Music Academy board. More than that, it was a moment of philanthropy that would forever transform the fortunes and future of the Music Academy of the West. – Henry Michaels Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West
Sources:  Sharon Crawford, Music Academy of the West, Santa Barbara: Fifty Years, 1947-1997 (1997) Special thanks to Konnie Gault for providing her notes on early Music Academy board minutes

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