Vivid descriptions, read from letters by Tiffany and his contemporaries, reveal the history behind one of his greatest artistic achievements.
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen: Laurelton Hall was the American artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany's magnificent country estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island—eighty-four rooms, eight levels, on nearly six hundred acres overlooking Long Island Sound. It was more than just a country house, it was one of his greatest works of art. He designed everything: terraced gardens and fountains; the architecture—including the main house, stables, tennis courts, greenhouses, art studios; all of the interior settings and finishes; the furniture; mantelpieces; lamps; rugs. And he eventually incorporated into it all of his major collections: Asian works of art; everything from sword guards to kingfisher feather headdresses; Native American baskets and beaded dresses; Islamic tiles and pottery. And into this extraordinary house he also put his collections of some of the very best of his favrile glass vases, pottery, enamelwork, and a virtual retrospective of his stained-glass windows.
Tiffany built the house between 1902 and 1905, and he moved in immediately with his family, using it as their country estate. Laurelton Hall soon became known as the location of some lavish entertaining for the artsy set of Tiffany's day, like his magical Peacock Feast of 1914. When journalists and guests recorded their impressions of the great estate, they always noted the beautiful harmony of nature, both inside and outside the house. In a rare statement on interior decoration, Tiffany himself wrote in 1917:
Man: "Nowadays, it is the fashion to import from abroad furniture and decorations, but very few examples are consistent with our own civilization, ideals, mode of living, or, for that matter, with a reasonable kind of life anywhere. I would rather make a plea for more restrained and reasonable decoration, with nature as a stimulus, a harmonizer."
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen: Visitors to Laurelton Hall described, more than any other aspect of the house, the magical impression of living in the midst of nature. Clara Lyman, a contemporary writer on home decoration, wrote this in 1914 of her arrival at the house and of its main living hall:
Woman: "The approach to the house through miles of laurel-lined drive puts one into a mood to which wooded glades and running brooks seem the natural accompaniment. And the delight of finding at the journey's end, the moment you step across the threshold, that your mood seems unbroken, is indescribable.
"With the charm of the wood drive still upon you, you find yourself presently at the top of a short flight of stairs, looking into a room of vast proportions, whose leafy, green-toned walls are decorated in the laurel design. As you stand at the threshold, masses of blooms seem to grow against this background, as though they belonged there. Twilight was coming on, and the window shades—of a dark green material like the walls and with the same laurel-leaf design—were drawn, completing the illusion of a forest glade. Presently the lights were turned on. The room at once became alive, yet one was scarcely conscious at first of the lights themselves, so wonderfully did they harmonize with their surroundings. Whoever has been under the spell of a deep forest at dusk, with the fireflies for the only light, may catch the mood of this charming room at Laurelton."
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen: Another writer, Charles DeKay, had this to say about effects created by Tiffany at Laurelton Hall using water and glass:
Man: "Gravel walks, flowering bushes, a pool of water, watched over by an immense Japanese bronze dragon, occupy the space on the inland side where the tall clock tower can be seen from finial to base. Entering from this garden of flowers, aquatic plants and fragrant bushes, one comes upon the central apartment, which has also running water, while through its farther windows one can see the blue stretches of Cold Spring Harbor. The tiled pool that freshens this middle room gets its water from a glass jar of wonderful color shaped like the slenderest of Greek amphorae. This rises from the middle of the pool. The water bubbling over the slender jar gains a tint, from glass and sunlight combined, which cannot be described by words. In position it is the center of the house and in fact may be the most beautiful object among the many there. Strange to say, this glass vase changes in color, varies not merely somewhat in accordance with the position of the sun in its fainter shades, but changes during the longer lapse of time as if through some action of the constant running of the water over glass. The vase, it seems, has a term of life.
"It is highly characteristic that Mr. Tiffany should be the one to discover this curious effect of running water on glass in the heart of his splendid country house. For who could appreciate better these fine shades of color, delicate as moonlight on dewy cobwebs, than the man who has fixed in favrile glass so many evanescent hues?"
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen: In 1918, Tiffany gave the house, its contents, and some of the surrounding land to the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, which he had founded so that artists could study, work, and be inspired by what he had created there. He continued to live at Laurelton Hall until his death in 1933, after which the house continued to be operated as he envisioned it, as a kind of public museum as well as a place for artists. But during the Second World War, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the house and gardens. The foundation made a very difficult decision and sold all the contents of the house in 1946, and then the house itself. In 1957, a fire tragically destroyed Laurelton Hall. The majority of the surviving architectural elements and windows were saved by Hugh and Jeanette McKean and transported to Florida, where they became part of the collections of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Tiffany's personal collections survived the fire, having been auctioned at the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation sale of 1946.
This is Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, curator of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall—An Artist's Country Estate. The exhibition reunites hundreds of works by Tiffany and from his personal collections, including many of his most spectacular leaded-glass windows and architectural elements like Laurelton Hall's dramatic Daffodil Terrace, conserved and displayed for the very first time. We hope that the exhibition—on view at the Metropolitan in New York through May 20, 2007—brings Tiffany's extraordinary dream house back to life, in a sense, once again.
The exhibition is made possible by The Tiffany & Company Foundation.
Additional support is provided by the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund.
It was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida.
We gratefully acknowledge Morrison H. Heckscher and Monica Obniski for their narrations.
This has been an Antenna Audio production.