The John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, which pays homage to the renowned artist and environmentalist, opened a new museum and nature facility this month, marking the most significant change to the Montgomery County property since Audubon arrived more than 200 years ago.
With a new $13 million building shaped like a bird in flight, the center expects to more than double its annual visitors over the next five years, creating a much larger attraction for western Montgomery County. The center can now display Audubon’s prized paintings in a tech-savvy building that both complements his artistry and invites visitors and online viewers to learn about birds and their importance to the environment.
“At a time when the natural world is under fire, we need a facility like this to help people of all ages see the beauty and importance of birds, and inspire them to take action," said Jean Bochnowski, the center’s director and the director of Audubon Pennsylvania.
Audubon, a Frenchman who came to the United States at the start of the Napoleonic Wars, gave Americans and Europeans their first detailed, life-size portrait of America’s migratory birds. His massive 435-page printed book titled Birds of America took him more than 20 years to complete, according to Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote the 2004 biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American.
The new 18,000-square-foot center stands a few hundred yards from the house where Audubon lived after he immigrated to America from France in 1803. In 2017, the center completed a $2 million renovation of Audubon’s home to help preserve it. It is located at 1201 Pawlings Road in Audubon, Pa.
“We are trying to shed the ‘old dusty’ art museum image that the center has had for many years,” Bochnowski said.
On a typical weekend last year, the center would see 15 visitors, she said. Now, after opening the new museum, it is seeing close to 100.
This venue, which gets 60 percent of its revenue from weddings, now aims to have a larger regional profile. Its admission prices rose from $5 to $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $10 for children. “We think this can be a full day experience for someone coming out of Philadelphia,” said Bochnowski.
The construction is made possible by a more-than-decade-old private-public partnership between Montgomery County and the National Audubon Society. The total $16 million spent on construction and renovations include $6 million from Montgomery County, a $6 million state grant, and $4 million worth of donations and accumulated revenue from the center. The center is still hoping to raise $1.5 million to strengthen its endowment.
The John James Audubon Center of Mill Grove is a nonprofit and is one of two National Audubon Society centers in Pennsylvania and 41 across the United States.
Montgomery County purchased the house in 1951 from the Wetherill family, who bought it to exploit the area’s lead mines, and dedicated it as the county’s first historic site.
Audubon’s three-story home, built in 1762, is largely made of light brown stone and sits on a 175-acre estate surrounded by woods and walking trails.
The museum, designed by the Conshohocken-based Kimmel Bogrette Architecture + Site, models a “bird in flight" with the main body of the center joined by two wings that branch out and are supported by “tree-like" columns, Bochnowski said. It has bird-safe windows frosted with gray and is surrounded by native plant species to attract more birds to nest.
On entering, people are greeted by a cutout of Audubon himself, welcoming them into a room filled with educational programs and interactive games, built by Universal Services Inc. of Folcroft. Through exhibits designed by the Gecko Group of West Chester, the center teaches viewers about birds -- their adaptations, structures, habitats, and mannerisms -- via Audubon’s artwork.
His art was originally displayed in his home, but much of it was removed years ago to avoid damage as the house’s structure deteriorated. The center owns a complete volume of Audubon’s Birds of America prints, his most prized work.
This is one of fewer than 100 complete volumes that exist, said Bochnowski. The others are largely displayed in museums and royal collections, including that of Buckingham Palace.
The center provides a deep look into Audubon’s life and artistic expertise, but officials don’t like to use the term art museum. “We see ourselves as really celebrating birds through the lens of Audubon and celebrating his impact on conservation,” said Bochnowski.
Audubon was born April 26, 1785, in Saint-Domingue (formerly a French colony and what is now Haiti) to his father’s maid and mistress on their sugar plantation. John and his father, Capt. Jean Audubon, moved back to France during the most murderous part of the French Revolution, which was traumatic for young John. He saw men beheaded by a guillotine and others chained together and drowned in the Loire River near their home.
The family moved into a more rural area near a large forest, where John’s father took him for walks and taught him about the wildlife. “It’s not uncommon for people who go through serious trauma to become interested in wildlife,” said Rhodes, his biographer. “I think that trauma in his childhood, and his father’s example, were a very important part of Audubon becoming interested in birds.”
John and his father continued observing wildlife together until Napoleon Bonaparte took over as France’s emperor. John, who was 18 at the time, fled to America in 1803 to escape conscription into the French army and take care of his father’s plantation outside Philadelphia.
It was there, in Mill Grove -- now Audubon -- that he met Lucy Bakewell, the woman whom he married in 1808. John’s love for birds continued as a hobby, and he eventually taught himself how to draw them. “He wanted to bring birds to life on paper, possibly as a way to heal from seeing so many people slaughtered in France,” Rhodes said.
Because there was no photography or binoculars, the only way for Audubon to study the birds was to kill them. After moving away from Pennsylvania and later going bankrupt in Kentucky, John found work as a portraitist and teacher, Rhodes said, and it was during this time that he was inspired to create a multivolume series of all the birds of the eastern migration routes, including the Mississippi Flyway, the route that goes through the middle of North America. It is used by more than 325 bird species, according to Audubon’s website.
John rode a flatboat down the Mississippi River, giving him a platform from which to observe, shoot, and collect migratory birds. He would pose them freshly killed in their natural form with a wire armature, and then draw and paint them with watercolors, usually within 24 hours. (Disclaimer: John ate every bird he killed, including the crows, Rhodes said.)
Over about 20 years, Audubon painted life-size portraits of 435 birds on the largest sheets of paper available. He worked with an engraver in London to transfer his paintings onto copper metal sheets, where multiple series of his drawings were replicated and sold as subscriptions to wealthy people across Europe, Rhodes said.