Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich, 1874-1948

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Abby Greene Aldrich Rockefeller (b. Abigail Greene Aldrich) was born on October 26, 1874, in Providence, Rhode Island, the fourth child of Abby Pearce Chapman and Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich. Her father served in the state House of Representatives, was Speaker of the House, and served as a U.S. Senator, including as chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Abby grew up in Providence and Warwick Neck in Rhode Island and in Washington, DC.

Abby received her early education from Quaker governesses. At 17, she began attending Miss Abbott’s School for Young Ladies in Providence, taking classes in English composition and literature, French, German, art history, ancient history, gymnastics, and dancing. She graduated in 1893 and made her debut the following November. In June 1894, she sailed for Liverpool, inaugurating a lifetime of European travel. Her first trip included England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France. Among other benefits, the aesthetic education she received while abroad helped to form her judgment as an art collector.

In the fall of 1894 at the Providence home of a former classmate, Abby met John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (JDR Jr.), son of the founder of the Standard Oil Company, who was then a sophomore at Brown University. After a lengthy courtship, they married on October 9, 1901. They had six children: Abby (1903-1976), John Davison, 3rd (1906-1978), Nelson Aldrich (1908-1979), Laurance Spelman (1910-2004), Winthrop (1912-1973), David (1915-2017)

Abby and JDR Jr. lived at 13 W. 54th Street in Manhattan until 1913, when the construction of 10 W. 54th Street was completed. They stayed at there until 1938, when they moved to an apartment at 740 Park Avenue. They also had homes in Pocantico Hills, New York; Seal Harbor, Maine, and Williamsburg, Virginia, where they were active members of each community.

When the United States entered World War I, Abby’s charitable and philanthropic activities began in earnest. From 1917 to 1919, she served as chair of Auxiliary 336 of the American Red Cross, completely financing its work. Quartered at JDR Sr.’s home at 4 W. 54th Street, volunteers prepared thousands of comfort bags for shipment to the fighting fronts in Russia, Italy, and France.

In 1917, Abby became chair of the new Housing Committee of the War Work Council of the National Board of the Young Woman’s Christian Association (YWCA). Her 1918 report, “Suggestions for Housing Women War Workers,” prompted the federal government to enact building standards for women’s housing at industrial sites, based on the experiences at 200 YWCA boarding houses. Abby’s interest in securing quality housing for workers led her in 1917 to chair the Grace Dodge Hotel Committee of the YWCA. Overcrowded housing conditions in Washington, DC, resulting from the influx of female war workers, necessitated immediate relief. The Grace Dodge Hotel opened in 1921. As one of the earliest champions of hotels for women, Abby closely monitored the hotel’s design and operation until 1937.

In 1919, Abby became interested in the living conditions of the employees of the Bayway Refinery of Standard Oil, located in the Bayway section of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Abby’s husband purchased six lots of land and deeded them to her for the construction of Bayway Cottage, a model workers’ home. In 1928, the cottage was expanded and renamed the Bayway Community House and was incorporated in 1937 as the Bayway Community Center. By 1943, some 4,000 families were using the Center and its clinics, gyms, nursery schools, bowling alleys, and meeting rooms. Over a 20-year period, Abby’s contributions amounted to $200,000.

With the founding of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in May 1929, the scope of Abby Rockefeller’s philanthropy widened dramatically. Her aesthetic insight and administrative and personal skills now found their fullest application, and she gained a permanent home for her growing collection of modern art. Although the idea of establishing a museum dedicated to fostering modern art had been floating about since the celebrated Armory Show of 1913, it was not until Abby began to solicit the advice of her own friends during the winter of 1928-1929 that the idea moved toward realization.

Conversations with art patron Lillie P. Bliss and art collector Mary Quinn Sullivan led to a meeting in May 1929 at which the three women invited A. Conger Goodyear to chair a museum-organizing committee. In July, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was appointed director. A seven-member Board of Trustees was elected in October and included Abby Rockefeller, Lillie Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan, A. Conger Goodyear, Frank Crowninshield, Josephine Porter Crane, and Paul J. Sachs.

Abby held several positions at MoMA. From 1929 to 1934, she served as treasurer. From 1934 to 1936, and again in 1939, she held the post of first vice president. Then from 1941 until 1945, she served as first vice chair. Abby also was a member of several committees of the Board of Trustees. She served on the Executive Committee (1930-1945), including as chair in 1936. She was a member of the Fine Art Committee from 1930 to 1934 and of the Exhibitions Committee from 1930 to 1939. She promoted the establishment in 1935 of a film library. With Stephen C. Clark and Kenneth Chorley, she organized the War Veterans Art Center in 1944, which offered art classes to disabled veterans until 1948.

Abby’s first gift to the new museum was an oil painting by Bernard Karfiol. Her largest gift came in 1935 with the presentation of 181 paintings and drawings. This represented almost her entire collection of modern art, gathered over the preceding 10 years, and comprised the work of 71 artists. In 1936, she gave MoMA its first formal purchase funds; these were augmented in 1938 by another gift and increased by half by her son Nelson in Abby’s name. The 1938 fund, named the Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. Purchase Fund, was unrestricted. In 1949, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room opened, housing Abby’s gift of 1,600 prints she had given nine years earlier.

In addition to her gifts to MoMA, Abby gave substantially to other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters, which received much of her collection of sculpture and decorative arts; the Rhode Island School of Design, which received her collection of Japanese prints; and the Ludwell-Paradise House at Colonial Williamsburg, which in 1939 received her entire collection of American folk art.

Abby’s numerous church activities included service as vice president of the Women’s Bible Class at the 5th Avenue Baptist Church and honorary vice president of the Women’s Society of Riverside Church in Manhattan. She was a member of the Building Committee of International House, Chair of the Decorating Committee and one of its trustees. She was a charter member of the Cosmopolitan Club and a member of the Colony Club, the Women’s City Club, the National Society of Colonial Dames, the Women’s National Republican Club, the Faculty Club of Harvard University, the Mayflower Descendants, and the Garden Club of America. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller died April 5, 1948, at her apartment in Manhattan.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller albums, 1929-1941. Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
referencedIn Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.). Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and print collecting : an early mission for MoMA . 1999- : Archives pamphlet file ; miscellaneous uncataloged material. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
referencedIn Berry, Martha, 1866-1942. Martha Berry office correspondence, 1908-1941 (bulk 1922-1941). Berry College, Memorial Library
referencedIn Warburg, Edward M. M. Oral history, 1991. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
referencedIn Rhode Island School of Design. Museum of Art. Presidents' and Directors' correspondence., 1893-1966, 1900-1948 Rhode Island School of Design Archives.
creatorOf Cole, Henry Denison, 1856-1938. Cole papers, 1786-1938. William & Mary Libraries
referencedIn Harriet Bliss Ford Papers MS 59., 1899-1953 Sophia Smith Collection
referencedIn Allen, Annie Ware Winsor, 1865-1955. Papers, 1818-1979 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Leslie Cheek papers Archives of American Art
creatorOf Charles C. Adams papers Archives of American Art
creatorOf Abby Aldrich Rockefeller papers, 1858-1957, n.d. Bulk: 1920-1948, 1920-1948 Rockefeller Archive Center
referencedIn Cole Papers, 1786-1939. Special Collections, College of William and Mary
referencedIn Corbin, John, 1870-1959. Collection, 1894-1956. University of Nebraska - Lincoln
referencedIn John Corbin, Papers, 1894-1956 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library
creatorOf Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich. Letters, 1931-1940, to Lewis Mumford. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
referencedIn Bethune, Mary McLeod, 1875-1955. Papers. 1923-42. Tulane University, Amistad Research Center
creatorOf Downtown Gallery records Archives of American Art
referencedIn Corbin, John, 1870-1959. Papers, 1894-1956. University of Nebraska - Lincoln
referencedIn Sachs, Paul J. (Paul Joseph), 1878-1965. Papers, 1903-2005. Harvard University Art Museum
referencedIn Johnson, Philip, 1906-. Oral history, 1990-1991. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
referencedIn Hicks, Edward, 1780-1849 : [miscellaneous ephemeral material]. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
referencedIn Forbes, Edward Waldo, 1873-1969. Papers, 1867-2005. Harvard University Art Museum
referencedIn Downtown Gallery records Archives of American Art
referencedIn Archives pamphlet file : Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich, 1874-1948 : miscellaneous uncataloged material. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
referencedIn Papers, 1818-1979 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Leyda, Jay, 1910-1988. Jay and Si Lan Chen Leyda papers, 1913-1987 (bulk 1930-1980). Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Cell 16 (Organization). Records, 1968-1974. Women's Movement Archives
creatorOf Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich. Scrapbooks, 1919-1941. Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
creatorOf Rockefeller, Abby Aldrich. Correspondence : with Carl Zigrosser, 1928-1946. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
referencedIn William Ernest Hocking papers Houghton Library
referencedIn Beard, Mary Ritter, 1876-1958. Papers, 1935-1958 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Rockefeller family. Rockefeller Family Archives, 1819-1990, 1879-1961 (bulk). Rockefeller Archive Center
referencedIn Ford, Harriet Bliss, 1876-1964. Papers, 1899-1953. Smith College, Neilson Library
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Oral history interview with Nelson Aldrich Archives of American Art
Relation Name
associatedWith Adams, Charles C. (Charles Christopher), 1873-1955. person
associatedWith Aldrich, Nelson W. person
associatedWith Allen, Annie Ware Winsor, 1865-1955. person
associatedWith ANNIE WARE (WINSOR) ALLEN, 1865-1955 person
associatedWith Berry, Martha, 1866-1942. person
associatedWith Bethune, Mary McLeod, 1875-1955. person
associatedWith Cell 16 (Organization) corporateBody
associatedWith Cheek, Leslie, 1908- person
associatedWith Cole family family
associatedWith Cole, Henry Denison, 1856-1938. person
correspondedWith Corbin, John, 1870-1959 person
correspondedWith Corbin, John, 1870-1959. person
associatedWith Daumier, Honoré, 1808-1879. person
associatedWith Downtown Gallery corporateBody
associatedWith Downtown Gallery (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Forbes, Edward Waldo, 1873-1969. person
correspondedWith Ford, Harriet Bliss, 1876-1964 person
correspondedWith Ford, Harriet Bliss, 1876-1964. person
correspondedWith Hocking, William Ernest, 1873-1966 person
associatedWith Johnson, Philip, 1906- person
associatedWith Lehmbruck, Wilhelm, 1881-1919. person
associatedWith Leyda, Jay, 1910-1988. person
associatedWith Mary (Ritter) Beard, 1876-1958 person
associatedWith Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Rhode Island School of Design. Museum of Art. corporateBody
associatedWith Rivera, Diego, 1886-1957. person
parentOf Rockefeller, David, 1915-2017 person
associatedWith Rockefeller family. family
associatedWith Rockefeller, John D., 1906-1978. person
associatedWith Sachs, Paul J. (Paul Joseph), 1878-1965. person
associatedWith Warburg, Edward M. M. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Providence RI US
Manhattan NY US
Museum trustees


Birth 1874-10-26

Death 1948-04-05



Ark ID: w6kf2qp0

SNAC ID: 87734140