Charlotte Russell Partridge and Miriam Frink Papers, 1862-1980


As it awarded Charlotte Russell Partridge a distinguished service award in 1965, the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Institute of Architects cited her for “a lifetime of activity in promoting the cause of art.” Foremost among her accomplishments was establishment of the Layton School of Art to prepare students for professional art-related careers in industry. Partridge served as director of the school for 34 years, developing it into a nationally recognized and accredited four-year professional art institution. Born in Minneapolis in 1881, Charlotte spent her childhood in Duluth. Father Frederick was an invalid and financial assistance came from Mother Carrie's wealthy brother, Arthur Orr. Uncle Arthur sent Charlotte to Dana Hall, a college preparatory school in Massachusetts. Poor grades and her father's death brought Charlotte home where she found her mother, sister, and brother in much reduced circumstances. The family soon relocated to Illinois. Charlotte and her sister, Eleanor, were sent to Northern Illinois Teacher's College in DeKalb. They both graduated in 1905 and were rewarded with a summer tour of Europe. Charlotte and Eleanor returned to teaching jobs in Oak Park, Illinois.

Family changes in 1909 included Eleanor's marriage to Arthur Harris, Mother's marriage to Henry Jordan, and brother Thomas Orr's bad conduct discharge from the Navy. Always a difficult child, the family grew increasingly suspicious that Orr (as he was called) was mentally unbalanced. Taking major responsibility for Orr took an emotional toll on Charlotte. Her mother urged her to give up teaching and offered to pay for Charlotte to attend an art school. She did go back to school, but her responsibility and concern for Orr continued until his death in 1963.

Charlotte thrived in her studies at the progressive Chicago School of Applied and Normal Art (later renamed the Church School of Art) and received her diploma in 1912 for a two-year course in normal art. She taught at the school for a year after graduation and later at the Francis Parker School in Chicago and the Chicago Kindergarten College. Concurrently, she engaged a studio where she devoted herself to design work, freelanced as a commercial artist, and studied painting at the traditional Chicago Art Institute night school. Her mother worried that Charlotte was “doing too much.” In fact, overworking became a lifelong habit for Charlotte. Under five feet tall, she was once described as a “tiny bundle of vision and energy.”

After she earned an Institute certificate, Charlotte jumped at an opportunity to do summer teaching at Commonwealth Art Colony in Boothbay Harbor, Maine with her mentor and former teacher, Miss Emma M. Church.

In 1914, Charlotte came to Milwaukee-Downer as a faculty member and later became head of the Fine Arts Department. She blew fresh air into a tired art curriculum and initiated one of the first occupational therapy courses in the country. Charlotte taught art as self-expression, a new concept in art education. Downer faculty member Elizabeth Upham later said, “Charlotte was a great teacher, especially of design and composition. She pioneered this field in art education.”

Charlotte met Miriam Frink, an English teacher at Downer, and the two hit it off based on mutual interests in theater, music, and art. Their friendship grew and in 1921 they rented their first apartment. The two lived together until 1973 when Charlotte entered the Mequon Care Center. She resided there until her death in 1975 at 92 years of age. Charlotte and Miriam built a studio cottage at Fox Point in 1930. Charlotte designed the cottage and closely supervised the carpenter, who had never built anything larger than a hen house. Their home in Mequon was completed in 1938. Functional and aesthetically pleasing, the house was designed according to sketches drawn by Charlotte and she supervised its construction.

Charlotte found Downer limiting and bristled under college president Ellen Sabin's strict rule. However, starting an art school had not occurred to her until Emma Church, in poor health, asked Charlotte to direct hers. Unwilling to move to Chicago, Charlotte bought Church's equipment and started her own art school in Milwaukee. Layton Art Gallery trustees committed their gallery basement, Miriam Frink joined Charlotte as co-director, and the Layton School of Art was incorporated as a non-profit institution of higher learning in August 1920. The school opened that fall with day and night courses for adult students and free Saturday classes for children.

Miriam and Charlotte continued teaching at Downer for two more years, while the women shared administrative duties and educational ideas at Layton. At Layton, Miriam taught literature appreciation and oversaw business and student activities, while Charlotte taught art classes and assumed responsibility for faculty and community activities.

In 1922, Partridge became director of the Layton Art Gallery, a position she kept until 1953. She also served on its board of trustees from 1921 to 1973. She brought current and important art exhibitions to Milwaukee and promoted Wisconsin artists through individual and group exhibits. Expanding the gallery's role, she prepared and circulated exhibitions by Wisconsin artists around the state and was involved in organizing the Wisconsin Centennial Art Exhibition in 1948.

A staunch supporter of modern art and design, Miss Partridge was involved in occasional controversies with artistic traditionalists. The American Institute of Architects criticized her in 1930 for showing an exhibit of Frank Lloyd Wright's work at the Layton gallery. Wright personally came to Milwaukee to set up the exhibit and speak on architecture. Critical in reviving Wright's sagging career, the exhibit traveled to various cities in the U.S. and Europe between 1930 and 1931. Asked to help plan and carry out the Public Works of Art Project, Charlotte went to Washington, D.C. in 1933. She helped lay the basic principles of the Federal Arts projects that gave financial support and creative impetus to America's unemployed artists during the Depression. She later served as Wisconsin State Chair of the project from 1933 to 1934 and continued as director of the Wisconsin Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1939. In 1940, she was asked by the Federal Works Agency to survey contemporary art and art institutions in the U.S. through Carnegie grant funding.

The Layton School of Art prospered and in 1951, with enrollment at 1,100 students, the school moved into its own building on Prospect Avenue. Employing cantilever construction and walls of glass block, the building was hailed as the most modern, picturesquely situated and functionally beautiful art school in the country.

Then, in a 1954 meeting, the Layton Board of Trustees voted to “retire” Partridge and Frink. Carried out over their objections and those of faculty, students, and alumni, the retirement was effective immediately. Earlier, Edmund Lewandowski had been chosen to replace them. The Board's position was that the work was too exhausting for them, but Partridge was told the school should be directed by a man.

A Layton graduate, Edmund Lewandowski was a controversial choice. Many felt that he was chiefly interested in promoting himself and were dismayed that Partridge had not been consulted regarding her replacement. Margaret Davis Clark, an alumna, later said, “I felt it was the beginning of the end. The school could not go on in the same way. It was very sad.”

Although embittered, the two remained involved with and dedicated to the institution. Partridge continued her service on the school's board of trustees until 1973, and both women continued their involvement with the Layton Art League. However, the ever-busy Charlotte had time on her hands and turned her attention to civic work.

Throughout her life, Charlotte was actively involved in an impressive array of professional and civic organizations. These included the Wisconsin Design-Craftsmen, Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors, Milwaukee Art Center, Women's Advertising Club of Milwaukee, Women's Auxiliary of the State Historical Society, and the Zonta Club of Milwaukee.

As president of the Zonta Service Committee, Charlotte spearheaded the Zonta Manor project. Zonta Manor was planned as a non-profit apartment building offering moderately-priced, independent living for the elderly. Serving as president of Zonta Manor Inc. from 1957 to 1965, she versed herself in the needs of the elderly and designed practical, innovative aids which were incorporated into the structure by architects Willis and Lillian Leenhouts. The building ran into financial difficulty and, in 1967, ownership transferred to the American Baptist Management Corporation which carried on its original purpose.

Miss Partridge was also a board member (circa 1966-1969) of the Walnut Area Improvement Council (WAICO), a self-help neighborhood project in a Milwaukee African American neighborhood. Charlotte did whatever was asked of her, which included guiding the group in parliamentary procedure and recruiting artists to teach at the community house.

In awarding Charlotte an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1969, Lawrence University President Thomas S. Smith stated, “Your contributions to Wisconsin art--farsighted, even prophetic--have reached beyond the field of art into industry and the general cultural and social life of the state.” Frank Lloyd Wright stated it more succinctly, “She is something of a captain herself.”

Charlotte Partridge once said of Miriam Frink, her lifelong friend and companion, “Miss Frink is the head and I am the feet of the school.” Margaret Clark Davis stated, “Charlotte was marvelous and Miriam was tremendous along with her... Miriam was like a Great Dane--[she] protected, undergirded, and saw to it that things worked out for Charlotte.” Tall and dignified, Miss Frink had an authoritarian appearance. She ran the business end of the school and was the disciplinarian. Although herself talented in writing and oral interpretation, Miriam always took a back seat to Charlotte. Their individual talents complemented each other and the two, together, made Layton unique.

Miriam's father, Charles, was a prominent local physician in Elkhart, Indiana, where Miriam was born in 1892. Miriam's mother, Maude Robinson, was liberal, progressive, and taught Miriam to be open to new ideas. Frink received degrees at Milwaukee-Downer and Smith colleges, returning to Downer in 1915 to teach freshman English.

After Charlotte's death, Miriam continued working with a researcher hired to write a history of the Layton school and their biographies. In early 1977, she gave up the home the two had shared. Miriam Frink spent her last days at the Mequon Care Center and died later that year, at age 85, following a stroke.