In April 1912, a state-of-the-art ocean liner left England on its maiden voyage, headed for New York City. Famously, that ship — the Titanic — never made it. The supposedly unsinkable craft hit an iceberg late in the evening on April 14, completely disappearing into the ocean just hours later. Fewer than a third of those on board survived.
The Titanic disaster has captivated people since the great ship went down, inspiring songs, museums and even, we hear, a movie or two. It also serves as an important plot point in the PBS series "Downton Abbey." (More on that later.) A new exhibit, "Dressing the Abbey," highlights a Rochester connection to the Titanic tragedy (and by extension, the abbey) while also providing an up-close-and-personal look at costumes from the hit show.
Dr. William J. Mayo and his wife, Hattie, Mr. and Mrs. Kahler, and several of their family and friends were crossing the North Atlantic at the same time as the Titanic was going from Europe to America, Matt Dacy, chair of Mayo Clinic Heritage Days, says in this video. Dr. Mayo's ship, the Amerika, actually sent iceberg warnings to the Titanic — warnings the ship acknowledged but failed to heed. Mayo Clinic's history might have been very different if the tables had been turned.
Dr. Mayo and Mrs. Kahler both kept records of the journey — Mrs. Kahler in a diary and Dr. Mayo on a timeline chart that includes an ominous, red-lined note on April 15: "Titanic." Dr. Mayo's chart highlights the slow pace at which information traveled at the time.
"There was confusion on the ship Dr. Will was on as to whether the Titanic had actually sunk," says Renee Ziemer, coordinator of Mayo's historical unit. With limited communication (and no social media), those on board the Amerika would not learn the Titanic's fate until several days after the tragedy. Several passengers on the Amerika had loved ones aboard the Titanic.
Now, back to Downton Abbey. Many notable historic figures, including millionaire John Jacob Astor and Macy's founder Isidor Straus, died when the ship sank. So did Benjamin Guggenheim, whose brother and sister-in-law, Murry and Leonie, later donated funds for the Guggenheim Building at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The PBS program imagines the loss of a similarly significant (albeit fictional) figure: Patrick Crawley, sole male heir to the estate of Downton Abbey. His death brings confusion and desperation to the Crawley family, whose three daughters cannot inherit the estate. Cue six seasons of gripping drama — and fabulous, historically accurate costumes that brought the early 20th century to life.
"Dressing the Abbey" offers a chance to see dozens of those costumes firsthand in several locations, including the Chateau Theater on Rochester's Peace Plaza, the Elizabethan Room at the Kahler Grand Hotel, and the History Center of Olmsted County. Two costumes are also on display in the Mathews Grand Lobby of the Mayo Building in Rochester, along with Mrs. Kahler's diary and other artifacts, including furnishings from historic Mayo Clinic properties.
The Mayo Clinic exhibit can be viewed through Feb. 27. Other displays will be open through April 8. The exhibit is sponsored by John T. and Lillian G. Mathews, founding benefactors of Mayo Clinic Heritage Hall and the Mayo Clinic Heritage Film series.