LLNYC recently visited the “Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to drool over the fanciest home decor of yesteryear. This display may very well make the perfect companion piece to another museum show, “Gilded New York” currently at the Museum of the City of New York. While “Gilded New York” is housed in just a single room and features the most luxurious wares — clothing, artwork, jewelry, glass and silver — from the late 19th century, the Met’s exhibit concentrates solely on home furnishings, through the creations of some of the most notable design firms of the period.
Housed in three galleries on the museum’s first floor devoted exclusively to classic furnishings, the exhibit is surprisingly intimate. The dim lighting adds to that mood and there are amazingly crafted stain-glass windows, intricate tile work, ornate wall coverings and lush velvet curtain panels.
But the real highlight here is the narrative. Who doesn’t love a good New York City love story — especially one filled with glorious property, jewels, power and success? While Arabella Worsham, a Southern widow, was dating railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington — a man 30 years her senior — she purchased a four-story townhouse with a two-story carriage house at 4 West 54th Street in 1877. She commissioned George A. Schastey to decorate this home in 1881. An renowned cabinetmaker in large part due to his Gilded Age clients, the exhibit highlights many of his unique and ornate creations.
Most startlingly is the dressing room housed in the Worsham-Rockefeller House. Museum visitors are invited to peek into an actual window, peering into the dressing room like true New York City voyeurs, always curious about what their neighbors’ residence looks like inside.
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang, curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains it is both a literal and figurative “jewel box.”
Not yet married to Huntington, Arabella had her dressing room designed to house a massive amount of jewels (most yet to be procured.) In a sort of “if you build it they will come”-type mentality, Worsham designed the dressing room for the life she aspired to have, à la “The Secret.” The private room featured the obligatory built-in wardrobe, vanity, dressing table and chairs. But more importantly it was done in “satinwood and purpleheart with mother-of-pearl inlays which revealed “a multitude of seashell and pearl motifs that reference Worsham’s great love of pearl jewelry.” It left plenty of areas to display a growing arsenal of jewels and other finery.
Worsham was right with her foreshadowing — she later married Huntingdon and became known as one of the United State’s biggest jewelry collectors and one of its richest woman. She promptly sold the home fully furnished to John D. Rockefeller who didn’t seem to care about getting a hand-me-down of that magnitude. The Huntingtons then purchased a far grander property on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue (where Tiffany’s currently resides) perhaps more foreshadowing of today’s Billionaire’s Row.
As Curator Frelinghuysen points out the exhibit is in many ways about real estate. During the Gilded Age, she explains, there was a huge real estate boom (hello early 2000s!) in which magnates and scions, were buying up parcels of land and began building houses, each bigger than the last. “The five-year period of about 1880-1885 was an extraordinary moment in New York City history,” explains Frelignhuysen. The curation of this exhibit illustrates the immense new wealth perfectly.
Another show stopper is a prominently displayed Steinway & Sons piano, with a unique case also created by Schaster for one-percenter of the time, William Clark in Newark in 1882.
As the museum guide explains, “To provide a context for Schastey’s work, the exhibition will also feature work by some of the period’s competing cabinetmaking and decorating firms: Pottier and Stymus, Charles Tisch, Herts Brothers, and Herter Brothers.”
Most noteworthy of these contemporaries is the Herter Brothers’ most important commission for the William H. Vanderbilt House (on Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets) which they completed in 1882.
The Metropolitan now owns the largest holdings of Herter Brothers work for the Vanderbilt commission.
To check out the exhibit for yourself stop by the Metropolitan Museum of Art before May 1, 2016. You will surely never flip through the IKEA or Crate & Barrel catalogs without getting a case of the sadz again.