Published: January 25, 2011
Of the masterpieces of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the most splendid was the spectacular country estate, Laurelton Hall, his personal Xanadu that he built on the North Shore of Long Island between 1902 and 1905. Set on nearly 600 acres above Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., with 84 rooms (and 25 bathrooms) on eight levels, Laurelton Hall was magnificent with Tiffany’s opulent creations and personal collections.
Tiffany had traveled extensively as a young man; his fancy was captured by the Moorish, Islamic, Indian and Oriental ornament he found in his travels. In creating Laurelton Hall, he blended the exotic with nature, using architectural and design elements that he had seen in the Alhambra and similar palaces. His gardens alone were spread out over 60 acres. His aim was the unity of the interior and the outdoors, and although the harsh Northeastern climate dictated some modifications, the result was simply spectacular.
Tiffany described Laurelton Hall as “a place for dreams,” and he made it his personal laboratory and museum, with himself as curator. He filled it with what he deemed his best works and made continuous additions and relocations, renovations and other improvements until his death in 1933. He established an art school, a museum and studio and set up a foundation to support these entities after his death. Financial reverses caused the trustees to send the contents of Laurelton Hall to auction at Parke Bernet in 1946, and the property was ultimately sold and subdivided. A 1957 fire finished off much of what remained.
Among the many who attempted to gather artifacts from the property’s ruins, the most aesthetically inclined and successful rescuers were Florida collectors Hugh and Jeannette Genius McKean. As a young man, Hugh McKean had been a fellow at Laurelton House.
After the fire and at the invitation of Tiffany’s daughter, Comfort, the McKeans gathered what windows, vases, architectural elements and fragments they could and shipped them to Winter Park, Fla., to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Jeannette McKean founded the Morse Museum in honor of her grandfather in 1942, her husband served as director for 53 years.
For 30 years after the fire, the McKeans continued to acquire Tiffany objects for the museum, creating what is widely considered the world’s foremost repository of the finest Tiffany work †encompassing every aspect of his oeuvre: glass, glass mosaics, furniture, pottery, enamels, paintings, metalwork and jewelry, to name just a few.
The 1915 Daffodil Terrace, because it was external to Laurelton Hall, was more easily salvaged than other parts of the house. Surviving pieces of the dining room, the living room and parts of the three-story reception hall known as the Fountain Court were also recovered by the McKeans and have been installed at the Morse.
Tiffany, who loved flowers and incorporated them in most of his work, used them in his design of the lavish gardens and in many of the 84 rooms of Laurelton Hall. He favored daffodils, dividing and planting thousands of bulbs around the property each fall. The interior of the house was equally abundant with daffodil forms in windows, lamps, vases and other furnishings he created, but the Daffodil Terrace was his spectacular incarnation of the blossoms. It effected the transition from indoors to outdoors, set between the conservatory and the dining room and leading to the gardens.
Most recently, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art has opened a new 12,000-square-foot wing of 11 galleries that are devoted to surviving pieces and representations of certain rooms at Laurelton Hall, evoking the artist, his work and his amazing house of fantasy.
While Laurelton Hall has been lost, the restoration of its parts at the Morse provides glimpses of the fantasy that was the original house. The new galleries, designed around the objects and based on the layout of Laurelton Hall, bring new light to Tiffany the man, his vision, his multilayered talents and the business acumen that allowed him to market his products so successfully.
The centerpiece of the project is the meticulously (and laboriously) restored Daffodil Terrace, installed in an all-glass gallery allowing natural light and visibility from all angles. It was reconstructed from some 600 pieces and fragments and is sited with a view of gardens, in the way of its original situation at Laurelton Hall.
Eight slender white marble columns measuring 11 feet each and raised on a substantial hexagonal base, define the 32-by-18-foot space. Each was made with a capitol of a bouquet of two dozen jaunty but delicately formed yellow Favrile glass daffodils. The petals were made from 12 different molds; the stems were made of green-blue glass embedded in concrete. While columns in other parts of the house also took the form of glass flowers, such as poppies, magnolia blossoms, lotus and dahlia, the daffodils have a particularly fluid and ruffled quality.
The terrace is divided into three sections, as it was in the original setting, the central one of which has a 10-square-foot opening to a skylight of six panels of iridescent blue glass tiles with leaf and stem shapes suggesting treetops against a brilliant sky. At Laurelton Hall, a pear tree grew in the center section, up into the skylight. The two other sections have Moorish-style coffered ceilings comprising 100 wood-grained tiles in Islamic patterns surrounded by cedar planks stenciled to represent lattice work.
It is believed that Tiffany acquired the tile forms in North Africa. The concrete floor has been scored to replicate the original; native plants provide the color and abundance of Tiffany’s lush terraced gardens.
The dining room at Laurelton Hall was situated between the Daffodil Terrace and the Fountain Court reception hall. The colors and designs in the room are thought to have been drawn from a blue and white Chinese embroidered medallion. The room is distinguished by the floor-to-ceiling Vermont marble chimney breast with three blue and green glass mosaic clock faces marking the date, day and time and is one of the few things salvaged after the fire. After conservation and restoration, it is on view on the new galleries.
Remarkably, one of three 25-foot rugs in the room survived and has been replicated for the installation to give visitors the feeling of walking through Tiffany’s home. The original is also on view. An 80-inch dome-shaped leaded glass chandelier extends the blue and white theme. It came from Laurelton Hall, having been purchased by the McKeans from the estate of actress Marion Davies. Six leaded glass wisteria transoms have also survived and are on view, as are the cream painted dining table and chairs offered at the Parke Bernet auction where they fortuitously failed to sell.
Faithfully replicated room settings reveal the context in which Tiffany placed furniture and accessories, windows and architectural innovations.
The Fountain Court, the three-story reception hall adjacent to the dining room and the living room, alluded to the fountains at the Alhambra, with a central 4-foot-high teardrop vase fountain. It was spring-fed and the water was channeled through several other fountains and terraces to the beach below the house. The original fountain has been installed below the millefiori blown glass hanging shade that hung above it. A display of choice pieces of Tiffany glass objects is installed in a Moorish-style display. Many of objects throughout the exhibit are marked “A-Coll.,” indicating that they came from the artist’s collection and that he considered them his finest efforts.
A single large window comprising four leaded glass panels representing the Four Seasons, a rectangular panel of an eagle and other panels was awarded a gold medal at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The panels have been conserved and installed in the living room vignette. There is the window “Feeding the Flamingoes” and the 1898 “Child with Gourd” that was exhibited in London before being installed at Laurelton Hall.
A massive desk, a re-creation of Tiffany’s own desk, is a workstation, complete with some of the books and periodicals he read, illuminated by a central massive iron oxbow fixture from which five turtleback glass lamps are suspended. In the same gallery, which is painted in the forest green shade that Tiffany used in his house, a pair of intricately carved Indian doors that were used in the art gallery on the grounds of Laurelton Hall is on view.
Tiffany’s lighting was used throughout the house and the museum installation is exact. There is even an example of the color wheels he used to alter the lighting on certain of his fountains.
The new galleries are faithful copies of the original house layout, where possible. Morse Museum curators made use of period drawings and photographs to install and site objects. The museum expansion was undertaken, says Jennifer Perry Thalheimer, the manager of collections at the Morse, with the aim of expanding Tiffany scholarship, to expand what people think about Tiffany †to help understand the genius of the man.
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is at 445 North Park Avenue. For information, www.morsemuseum.org or 407-645-5311.
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