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Leslie Cheek, Jr. Personal Papers (SC-02)

 File — Multiple Containers
Identifier: SC-02

Scope and Content Note

The collection's inclusive dates are 1931-1993, with the bulk of the material dating from the 1960s-1980s. The collection is comprised of correspondence, plans, photographs, financial records, interviews, book drafts, exhibition records, travel itineraries, and other ephemeral material.


  • Creation: 1931-1993



The collection is open for research. A limited number of files are restricted. Access to restricted materials may require written permission of the donor and/or the VMFA Director.


The collection is subject to all copyright laws. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by copyright, beyond that allowed by fair use, requires the researcher to obtain permission of copyright holders.

Biographical Note

Leslie Cheek, Jr. was the second and longest-tenured Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. During his 20 year Directorship (1948-1968), he transformed the museum from a regional gem to a museum that operated on the international stage.

Born in Nashville, Cheek was the son of Mabel Wood and Leslie Cheek, Sr., who became rich by investing in the family formula for Maxwell House Coffee. Cheek studied art at Harvard University before taking up architecture at Yale University and Columbia. After graduation, he headed to William and Mary College where he founded and headed up the Department of Fine Arts from 1937-1939. In 1939, he married Richmonder Mary Tyler Freeman, daughter of Pulitzer Prize winning author Douglas Southall Freeman. From 1939-1942, Cheek served in his first Directorship at the Baltimore Museum of Fine Art. He left the museum in 1942 to join the Army Corps of Engineers in WWII.

After the war, he was hired as the Associate Editor of Architectural Forum Magazine and lived in New York City for three years. In 1948, he came to the VMFA as Director, spending 20 years building the collections, endowments, and reputation of the museum. He was known for the Artmobile, a mobile art program which brought the museum's collections all over the state of Virginia, and the Virginia Museum Theatre which opened in 1955 and successfully integrated the performing and visual arts.

After retiring in 1968, Cheek stayed active in the arts, and two books were published about his life and career, "Living by Design" and "Designing for the Arts." In 1967, the Cheeks purchased a mountaintop home named Skylark Farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which they donated to Washington and Lee University in 1977.

Source: The Dictionary of Art Historians

Source: Virginia Commonwealth University's Guide to the Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek McClenahan Papers


19.4 Linear Feet (16 boxes; 596 folders and 48 oversized items)

Language of Materials



This collection documents a portion of the life of Leslie Cheek, Jr., the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' second and longest-tenured Director (1948-1968). One series includes material from his early career and activities before the VMFA, as well as his tenure at the museum, and through his retirement. Two series document the publication of two photobiographies about Cheek, "Living by Design" and "Designing for the Arts." Another series is comprised of materials about Skylark Farm, the house and tree farm located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, owned, designed and furnished by the Cheeks between 1967 and 1977 when it was donated to Washington and Lee University. Other series document the Cheeks' personal world travels in the 1950s-1980s, some of Cheek's awards, and finally, a number of framed architectural drawings done by Cheek as a student in the 1930s.


The collection is organized into six series, folders are arranged in the original order maintained by Cheek, and retain their original folder titles when provided.

Series 1
Skylark Farm, 1966-1992
Series 2
"Living by Design" and "Cheek and the Arts," 1945-1989
Series 3
"Designing for the Arts," 1984-1991
Series 4
Personal Files, 1934-1992
Series 5
Awards and Degrees, 1931-1993
Series 6
Trips, 1952-1980


This collection is comprised of materials donated by Leslie Cheek, Jr.'s family members. The bulk of this collection was donated to the VMFA Library by Leslie's widow Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek McClenahan in 1993. The remainder of the material was donated by Leslie’s children in 2005.

Related Materials - VMFA Library: Books

  • Ten Talents in the American Theatre, 1957
  • Living by Design: Leslie Cheek and the Arts, 1985
  • Designing for the Arts: Environments by Leslie Cheek, 1990
  • Southern Civility: Recollections of my Early Life, 2003

Related Materials - VMFA Library: Exhibition File

  • Drawings for the Stage by Leslie Cheek, Jr., 1987

Related Materials - VMFA Library: Subject File

  • VMFA Directors: Leslie Cheek Jr. (4 folders)

Related Materials - Library of Virginia

  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Director's Correspondence, 1936-1976 (Coll. No. 33863 and 44067)
  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Exhibition Files, 1936-1992 (Coll No. 31633, 32958, 33041, 33160, 34679, 36342, 36957 and 37636)

Related Materials - Other Institutions

  • Archives of American Art, Washington, DC: Architectural Forum, 1945-47; Time Lab, 1946-47; House Beautiful, 1947; Forum Exhibits, 1946-48; Exhibition Houses, Architectural Forum, 1947; Architectural League; Beauty at the Bar, Architectural League, 1948; Life in USA Houses Speech, Architectural League, 1946; Baltimore Museum Files: Correspondence, Photographs, Exhibition Info and Brochures; Architectural Consultant Files, 1968 to 1992; Above It All (Yale Thesis); Camouflage Info, Fort Belvoir, early 40's; For Us the Living (microfilm, original at MOMA); Oral History Interview
  • College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA: Photographs of Stage Sets; Articles; Festival Theatre; Publicity for Theatre Development; Publicity for Frobenius; Cheek Award; O'Keefe Affair; Muscarelle Museum; Competition Show; Publicity for Stage Design Exhibitions; WandM Coat-of-Arms; Tom Sawyer Exhibition; Publicity for Frank Lloyd Wright Show; Washington Speech; 19th Century Party; Faraway Farm Information; Drawings of Stage Sets related to WandM (Phi Beta Hall; Taliaferro Hall, Parties)
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY: For Us the Living Exhibition
  • Queens Museum, New York City, NY: Drawings of the 1939 New York World's Fair (Virginia Room)
  • Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA: Four Camouflage Training Displays (Ft. Belvoir – early 40's); Rotunda Club History

Processing Note

Processing and description were performed by Jennie Runnels in the mid-1990s. Original folder titles were retained. Publications were removed and added to the VMFA Library's holdings. Framed items were disassembled and the materials stored in flat files, with the exception of the few framed items which used archival mats.

Finding Aids to Special Collections in the VMFA Archives | Leslie Cheek, Jr. Personal Papers
Special Collection 02 (SC-02)
Jennie Runnels, Records Manager; Finding aid encoded by Courtney Yevich Tkacz, VMFA Archivist (2009)
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Archives Repository

Margaret R. and Robert M. Freeman Library
200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard
Richmond VA 23220-4007 United States