Family lore and Boston maritime history took center stage last month when relatives and friends of the late Robert Woodbury gathered at UMass Boston’s Campus Center for the unveiling of The Great Republic, an oil painting his family bestowed on the university.
Woodbury, who passed away in September, had served as director of UMass Boston’s former John. W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs in the late 1990s.
His family’s nineteenth century oil painting portrays the largest wooden clipper ship ever constructed by the famed Boston shipbuilder Donald McKay, Woodbury’s great great grandfather. It will hang in the Campus Center’s University Dining Room.
The painting represents some historical firsts for the university. Painted circa 1875, it will be the oldest piece of artwork on display in the Campus Center. The Great Republic is also the first piece of art to aesthetically connect the panoramic vistas of the Boston Harbor, seen from the windows in the University Dining Room, with the city’s rich maritime history.
“The Great Republic is truly an extraordinary gift from an extraordinary public servant whose passion for social justice fueled a most distinguished career in public higher education,” Chancellor J. Keith Motley said at the painting’s unveiling. “As the University of Massachusetts Boston is honored by the leadership Robert Woodbury brought to the McCormack Institute, we are also honored to be the beneficiary of his family’s philanthropy.”
At 325 feet long, weighing 4,000 tons, and bearing masts of over 300 feet high, The Great Republic was built for speed. The clipper ship was one of McKay’s most famous designs in a line of legendary creations which made him one of America’s most pre-eminent shipbuilders of that era. During the California Gold Rush, he was celebrated for building extreme clippers that could transport goods from the East Coast to the then booming San Francisco at unsurpassed speed. Today, an obelisk on South Boston’s Castle Island pays tribute to McKay’s engineering prowess.
When the clipper ship was launched on October 4, 1853 in Boston, economic times were good and America was seemingly poised to become the world’s leading maritime power, so McKay’s Great Republic become a national symbol of these accomplishments. The governor declared the ship’s launch day to be a state holiday and schools were closed. An estimated crowd of 50,000 people from all over New England came to Boston Harbor to witness the historic christening before the ship was to set sail to New York.
But the Great Republic was only to last a few months. In December 1853, while moored on the East River docks in New York, it was destroyed in a fire that started in an adjacent bakery, and the clipper ship was declared a total loss. McKay, who never got over that loss, was compensated by insurers who later sold the ship’s hulk to Captain Nathaniel Palmer. Palmer salvaged and rebuilt the vessel which went back to merchant service in 1855.
While Donald McKay won fame and fortune from his career in shipbuilding, his great great grandson Robert Woodbury built a notable career in public higher education in Massachusetts and Maine. His service at UMass Boston’s former McCormack Institute of Public Affairs—elevated into the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies in 2006— followed his tenure as Chancellor of the University of Maine, and prior administrative posts at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The Great Republic painting had been in Woodbury’s family for several generations. He took possession of it in the 1970s when his mother was breaking up the belongings in his grandmother’s home. Since then, it had stayed with his wife and their children as they moved from Amherst, Massachusetts to Maine.
Woodbury made an impromptu visit to the UMass Boston campus in 2008. He first met Campus Center Director Geoffrey Combs, who took him on a tour of the new building. Having participated in the planning for the Campus Center, Woodbury was excited to learn about and witness the building’s role in the university’s life.
And he was impressed with what he saw. With its white stone face and large windows facing onto the Boston Harbor, the university’s signature edifice houses student services and student activities and provides meeting and conference space for the university community and visitors. As the university’s unofficial “living room,” and gateway to the campus, Woodbury learned that it has helped to further community interaction by bringing together students, faculty, and staff in a welcoming setting.
It was that visit that inspired Woodbury to give The Great Republic to UMass Boston.