By Kaitlyn Gammon
The Leache-Wood seminary was a school for women that opened in Norfolk in 1871. It was founded by Irene Leach and Anna Cogswell Wood, two women who, through their actions and their dedication, helped shape the cultural scene of Norfolk and brought to the city a wealth of valuable art. Irene Leache and Anna Cogswell Wood met while Anna was a student at the Angerona seminary in Winchester, Virginia that Irene taught at in 1868. The two instantly took a liking to one another, and formed a bond that would last the rest of their lives. The seminary provided not only higher education for girls, but even included a kindergarten that taught younger children in the area. The school provided its students with the opportunity for exploring the arts in terms of holding dramatic productions and musicals, and had an intense curriculum that educated them in matters of contemporary cultural importance. The women even held a weekly club every Saturday in their home called the “Fireside Club,” where students, other teachers, and members of the Norfolk community could come to discuss cultural and intellectual topics, with Anna claiming that they had “twenty or thirty” visitors every week. The women sold the school in 1891 and spent the rest of their lives together traveling throughout Europe and collecting artifacts and works of art.
Irene fell ill and passed away in 1899, and Anna devoted her energy to preserving and honoring her partner’s memory. She took the art they gathered together, and the art she collected on her single travels after Irene’s death, and with the help of former students, established a foundation in Irene’s memory. The Irene Leache Library that Anna opened served as a home for the art that she collected throughout her travels, and the Irene Leache Memorial Foundation fostered artistic growth in the area. Anna died in 1940, but even after her death the students the two women taught and the people they influenced went on to continue cultural production in Norfolk. The efforts of Irene and Anna led to the establishment of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, the Little Theater, the Norfolk Society of Arts, and the Tidewater Artists Association. The collection of art that embodied the Irene Leach Memorial Foundation was on loan to the Chrysler Museum almost from its 1933 opening, and in 2014 it was gifted to the Museum, finally giving the collection a permanent home that fulfills Anna’s dream for the preservation of Irene’s memory. That two women in a loving, lifelong relationship were able to influence and shape Norfolk’s culture so much is a wonderful reminder that though queer people are traditionally absent from historical narrative, we have always been present, important, and able to shape society in a positive manner.
- This image is from the Chrysler Museum’s digital collection, in the “Harry C. Mann: Norfolk Photographer” collection. Found here: http://collection.chrysler.org/emuseum/view/objects/asitem/7463/10/title-asc?t:state:flow=2c87a261-0b76-4430-95c3-4c6f3e80ea9d