Ceramist Frans Wildenhain and the Invention of the Automobile

Ordinarily, Frans Wildenhain is associated with mid-century ceramics. Occasionally for work in bronze. And some two-dimensional art in watercolor, or inks or graphite as well.

Yet there is at least one more thing. Cars.

In 1955 Frans and his wife Marjorie McIlroy moved from an apartment above an old carriage house at 3 Strathallan Park in Rochester to Bushnell’s Basin. A dozen miles east of Rochester, Bushnell’s Basin is a moody, bucolic location where fog seems to settle and linger for longer than elsewhere. There, out in the country, and a short distance off a rural two-lane road, they restored a small house and built a studio, nestled in the woods near a pond and surrounded by wildlife.

Wildenhain purchased the property, once part of a sheep farm, from the somewhat quirky Selden automobile family. George Selden, a patent lawyer to George Eastman, filed for a patent for an automobile in 1879 that was granted in 1895. He was the self-proclaimed inventor of the gasoline propelled automobile. And Selden engaged in a protracted if quixotic legal battle he eventually lost.

Marjorie Selden, from whom Wildenhain purchased the property, seemed in some ways to be Frans’s match and a kindred spirit. She is described by one as “mannish” in appearance, frequently wearing heavy woolen clothing and often smoking a corncob pipe.

The original structure, a Wildenhain friend recalled, had been assembled by Mrs. Selden from salvaged architectural elements: “bits and pieces she took from Third Ward homes” that had little insulation and was always cold.

Mrs. Selden “saved everything she could,” reported a Wildenhain student, who helped Mrs. Selden assemble the structure. At least a half dozen other people with whom I spoke each characterized the structure as a “chicken coop.”

Frans’s apprentice in the late 1950s remembers the structure’s living quarters as comprised of two bedrooms, living and dining room, a tiny kitchen and small showroom.

The studio, though, which was new construction, was generous in size with a bank of four nearly floor-to-ceiling windows along one long brick wall, each window comprised of three ganged panes that overlooked the pond and permitted in streams of sunlight.

Another student remembers Frans repeatedly telling the story of Mrs. Selden: “She was in her 70s and had built the house out of pieces from other homes all by herself. [And the lesson to be learned from the story was:] This is what a single person can do if determined.”

OK, so Frans didn’t invent the automobile. But he had his brush with motorized fame.

2 thoughts on “Ceramist Frans Wildenhain and the Invention of the Automobile

  1. Another interesting point about the house Mrs. Seldon built, was discovered one evening when Marjorie and Frans were enjoying a fire in the fireplace. Suddenly the fire took on a rather emphatic life of it’s own. They discovered once they put out the fire that the floor of the fireplace was constructed out of wood! I remember Frans telling this story, martini in hand, in his usual bigger than life manner, finishing off with his great big wonderful laugh.

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