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William Voss Elder III, White House curator

ArtistsMuseumsArchitectureWhite House

William Voss Elder III, a retired Baltimore Museum of Art curator who helped first lady Jacqueline Kennedy during the 1960s bring antique furnishing to the White House, died of heart failure Thursday at Northwest Hospital. The Upperco resident was 82.

In more than three decades at the Baltimore Museum of Art, he enlarged its collections of furniture, glass, porcelain, textiles and silver, and rescued architectural treasures by salvaging doomed interiors for reinstatement as period rooms.

Born in Baltimore, he was the son of William Voss Elder Jr., a Robert Garrett financial trader, and Margaret Sellers Elder, who was trained as a nurse. He attended St. Paul's School and was a 1950 graduate of the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa.

He earned a degree in art history from Princeton University, where he graduated with honors. His senior thesis was on Maryland's Colonial architecture. He then studied at the University of Pennsylvania and was an art history instructor. When the job of registrar opened at the White House, a professor recommended him for the post.

According to an autobiographical sketch he wrote many years ago, he left the University of Pennsylvania in October 1961 to become the registrar at the White House. He said he spent time there "helping to accumulate a permanent collection of American furniture and paintings." He worked to improve the quality of its furnishings and paintings during what became known as the Camelot years.

Not long after working in Washington, Mr. Elder was named curator of the White House and worked closely with Jacqueline Kennedy, as well as President John F. Kennedy. In an oral history made in 1965, he recalled buying a pier table at a Baltimore antiques store for use in the presidential office. He was part of the team that furnished the presidential mansion with 18th- and 19th-century antiques.

"Our office was right in the building, right down by the elevator, so it was very easy to kind of show [Jacqueline Kennedy] things, or to ask her little questions as they came up day by day, " he said in the 1965 interview. "We used to do a great deal in our office. You had to make decisions yourself. ... You knew if someone wrote in and offered a plate from the Andrew Jackson administration ... you just said, 'Fine.' "

He also recalled replacing chests of drawers in the Kennedy living quarters, being careful to work there only when the family was out of the White House. He said he would personally transfer the contents from the old piece to the newly installed antique. While Mrs. Kennedy was often credited with bringing taste for good antiques to the White House, he said that President Kennedy also took an interest as well. He recalled placing good-quality maritime paintings in the president's office.

"Bill was really the scholar at the White House. He was incredibly knowledgeable," said James Abbott, a friend who is director and curator of the Evergreen Museum and Library. "He had the kind of personality where he could befriend anyone, and he was of a social standing that he could speak to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as an equal. Bill didn't seek much publicity, and he was humble. Also, he and Jackie both loved horses. There was a camaraderie between them."

Mr. Elder said his work at the White House was winding up at about the time of the assassination of President Kennedy. He retained a box of White House memos and handwritten notes from the first lady.

He left Washington in late 1963 when Baltimore Museum of Art director Charles Parkhurst offered him a post as curator of decorative arts.

"Jackie Kennedy said that Baltimore's gain was Washington's loss," said Mr. Abbott. "People often forget how much Bill loved Baltimore. He knew forgotten landmarks and had a strong curiosity about them."

Friends said Mr. Elder soon substantially enlarged the museum's holdings in his field of decorative arts.

From his knowledge of Maryland architecture, he championed buildings that would be torn down. Mr. Elder recognized the value of Willow Brook, a 1799 Mount Street mansion in Southwest Baltimore that at the end of its life had been used by the Good Shepherd Sisters as a home for troubled teen girls. The city acquired the property for a school near Union Square. He oversaw the removal of its elegant oval drawing room.

He also salvaged delicate moldings, a staircase and mantle from Waterloo Row, a block of houses in the 600 block of N. Calvert St. that had been designed by architect Robert Mills.

Mr. Elder officially retired from the museum in early 1997 but kept a desk there for several more years.

In the 1970s, he founded the Friends of the American Wing, an organization of museum members interested in decorative arts. The group increased in size and raised money for museum purchases. He also led museum tours. He discouraged shopping and napping on these trips and kept groups constantly moving from museum to museum and house to historic house.

He was an adviser to Dorothy McIlvane Scott, whose furniture collection is now at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He also advised Angelica Pearre, who collected Maryland-made furniture.

Friends said Mr. Elder was frugal — he drove used Volkswagen beetles or other used cars — and often was appalled at the prices that antiques dealers charged. Friends said he was also generous but gave anonymously.

"Last May on one of our exploratory trips, we went to the Patterson family cemetery in Waverly," said Mark B. Letzer, chief development officer at the Maryland Historical Society. "The cemetery is surrounded by four walls, with spikes at the top. I borrowed a ladder and he ran up it. It was something that he had never done. The man did everything, and there was not much he didn't know."

Mr. Elder was the author of books on Chippendale and Queen Anne furniture and Annapolis cabinetmaker John Shaw. He also wrote "American Furniture 1680-1880 from the Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art," "Baltimore Painted Furniture 1800 to 1840," as well as works on Waterloo Row and Willow Brook.

"He was always really committed to Maryland and manuscripts about the state," said Mr. Letzer. "His first love was architectural history, followed by furniture. He had a knack. He could look at a piece and could say whether it was original or had been bastardized. He just knew."

He lectured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Winterthur Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, among other places.

He served on the board at Annapolis' Hammond-Harwood House and was an adviser to Historic Annapolis on the Paca House.

A traveler, he was fascinated by the history of Persia and had been to Greece more than 50 times. He was a dog fancier and had at least two rescue dogs.

A memorial gathering will be held at 5:30 p.m. May 9 in the Woodward Gallery of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.

Survivors include his brother, Thomas Christopher Sellers Elder of Sparks; and nieces and nephews.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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