THE ANNENBERG COMMISSION BY THOMAS MOLESWORTH: PROPERTY FROM RANCH A
In 1933, while his Wyoming lodge at Ranch A was under construction, Moses Annenberg took a stroll down a street in nearby Cody and walked into Thomas Molesworth's furniture shop. Attracted to the vibrant manner in which Molesworth combined rustic elements with Western themes in his furniture, Annenberg commissioned him to design the entire interior and furnish his lavish Ranch A retreat with over 245 objects. An enterprise of such scope and scale was a daunting undertaking for Molesworth's Shoshone Furniture Company which had opened just two years prior. It was, however, these furnishings that established Molesworth's individual style and launched his career as an American designer of a distinctly Western style. The completion of Ranch A, coupled with commercial commissions for dude ranches and hotels, allowed the Shoshone Furniture Company to quickly gain a reputation for being the most sought-after and highly evolved producer of these distinct interiors.
Ranch A itself was the product of a serendipitous moment. On his way to Yellowstone National Park, Annenberg, a German immigrant who rose from newspaper delivery boy to multi-millionaire publisher, was passing through Beulah, Wyoming and stopped at a local restaurant for supper. Upon eating a particularly tasty trout, he asked where the fish had come from and if he could meet the owner of the property. Annenberg was introduced to Frank La Plante the next day and purchased 650 acres from him, including a section of Sand Creek (where the trout had once swam), for the asking price of $27,000, which he paid in cash out of his pocket on the spot.
When Moses Annenberg purchased his property in Beulah, it was the golden age of Western ranching in America. Considering it as exotic as the African wilderness, wealthy Easterners flocked to the West for a glamorous and romantic "cowboy" experience, either building their own ranches and lodges or visiting as guests. Certainly Annenberg was not alone; among other wealthy travelers looking for this authentic Western experience was John D. Rockefeller who owned Triangle X Ranch, Bar BC and the JY Ranch, all near Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the Coca Cola magnate Bob Woodruff who owned TE Ranch near Cody, Wyoming.
Construction of Ranch A began in 1932, and the architect Raymond Ewings hired log artisans, the Finnish trained Juso brothers, to build the grand log cabin without using a single nail. While Moses envisioned Ranch A to be a vacation home for his family, his wife Sadie and their seven daughters visited only once, and the ranch became a retreat for himself, his son Walter, and their many guests, including notorious crime figures (the house was even equipped with trunk phone lines in the basement to accommodate the Daily Racing Form and bookies' wires). Annenberg himself was convicted of income tax evasion in 1939, sentenced to Federal Prison and released shortly before his death in 1942.
Born in Kansas in 1890, Thomas Molesworth attended the Art Institute of Chicago in 1908-1909 to study painting. The Institute was the Midwestern center of the Arts and Crafts movement which had begun in Britain in the 1880s, and it was here that Molesworth became imbued with its principles. The movement, a reaction to industrialization and the loss of craftsmanship in manufacturing, stressed the creation of a total work of art in which all the elements of architecture, interior design and furniture are united. Additionally, the production of furnishings and other crafts were executed in small shops with a high level of workmanship and quality materials.
After a variety of jobs, including working for a furniture firm in Chicago and a stint in France with the Marines during WWI, Molesworth moved to Cody, Wyoming with his young family and opened the Shoshone Furniture Company. In his work for Ranch A, Molesworth harkened to his year at The Art Institute and his time in Chicago. He created an astonishingly complete interior, designing hundreds of objects made with the help of local craftsmen and complimenting them with Navajo blankets and rugs, Chimayo weavings as well as the work of Western painters and photographers. This combination would appear time and again in his décor.
Molesworth's furniture is typically of sturdy construction and the Ranch A pieces are no exception -- chairs and couches have massive pole frames with oversized burls emphasizing the strength of the wood and exotic grain. Cabinets and bureaus are incised with western motifs and the Annenberg initials have been playfully rendered as teepees. The cutout on the wrought-iron firescreen suggests an American Indian village and the twin beds are decorated with carved elks and mountain goats drawing further from Western themes. Each piece in the selection of works offered from Ranch A illustrates Molesworth's lively and exaggerated 'cowboy' style.
The family of the present owners' of the Ranch A furnishings offered here spent summers at the ranch when they owned it in the 1950s. The October 1956 issue of National Geographic captured the spirit of Molesworth's creation, with the present owners' family pictured, in the article, "Back to the Historic Black Hills". Prior to that, in 1942, a group of investors, including the former Wyoming Governor Nels Smith, purchased Ranch A from Annenberg and it subsequently changed hands four times between 1942 and 1963 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gained the title. Federal legislation deeded the property to the State of Wyoming in 1996 and it remains in the care of the State of Wyoming today.
A PAIR OF ARMCHAIRS, CIRCA 1933