Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room
New York City, 1881–82
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts; Nicholas Vincent, Research Associate; and Moira Gallagher, Research Associate
The Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room, installed in Gallery 742, is among the most elaborate and best-preserved interiors from late 19th-century New York City. It comes from the West 54th Street home of Arabella Worsham (ca. 1850–1924), mistress of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington (1821–1900). Worsham commissioned George A. Schastey & Co., one of the preeminent New York cabinetmaking firms, to decorate the interiors of the house around 1881–82. Two years later, she married the recently widowed Huntington and sold the property, fully furnished, to John D. Rockefeller, who made few changes during his ownership of more than fifty years.
The Dressing Room is a fine example of an artistic interior designed as a unified whole, a concept favored by the Aesthetic movement, which was in vogue in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The woodwork, built-in cabinetry, and furnishings all harmonize. The room itself is a complete work of art. The satinwood paneling and furnishings feature Renaissance-inspired ornamentation, both carved and in marquetry. The woodwork, painted ceiling, and frieze are original and survive in superb condition. The stenciled walls and textiles have been reproduced from the room's original designs.
The original house
The original house at 4 West 54th Street was a speculative real estate venture by New York merchant William P. Williams. Built in 1864, it consisted of a four-story Italianate brownstone over a raised basement, with a garden plot to one side and bordered on the other by a two-story carriage house. The project anticipated the northward development of Manhattan by the city's fashionable elite. Arabella Worsham, with the financial backing of Collis P. Huntington, acquired the property in 1877.
Decorating the house
Arabella Worsham hired the architect G. E. Harney to enlarge the house in 1881 and commissioned George A. Schastey & Co. to redecorate the interiors in accordance with the progressive Aesthetic taste. Employing the historicizing manner that was central to the Aesthetic movement, Schastey designed each room in a different historical revival style. Rare surviving photographs from about 1883 document the richly furnished interiors with their overtly artistic effects.
The Aesthetic movement
The Aesthetic movement evolved from ideas that emerged in mid-nineteenth-century Britain for reforming the arts in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The catalyst for the movement's popularity in the United States was the 1876 Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia. Aestheticism remained a force through the mid-1880s, spurring intense interest in collecting and leading to the founding of many of the nation's art museums. Domestic interiors with fully integrated room ensembles by designers such as George A. Schastey, Herter Brothers, and Louis C. Tiffany best expressed the tastes of the era.
The Dressing Room
The Dressing Room was located on the second floor, between the bedroom and the library. A window faced east to catch the morning light and offered views of the property’s garden and carriage house. Its artistic cabinets, drawers, and wardrobe provided ample storage for garments and accessories. It was outfitted with a sink for basic washing. Off the Bedroom, there was a small full bathroom.
A private space
Although decorated in a manner comparable to the lavish public rooms in the townhouse, the Dressing Room was a private space accessible to only a few individuals. Standing in front of the three large mirrors or seated at the dressing table, Arabella Worsham and, later, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, used this room with the help of a lady's maid to arrange their coiffures, dress in complex clothing, put on jewelry, and apply makeup and perfume.
Italian and French ornament of the late Renaissance inspired the playful carved elements and marquetry designs of the large, built-in wardrobe and flanking cupboards. A crenelated cornice tops the wall-long structure, punctuated with three-dimensional, carved putti heads and garlands of beaded necklaces. On the cabinet doors, marquetry vines and lions' heads in profile frame exquisitely carved decorative reliefs, also referencing fifteenth-century designs.
The decorative scheme
The Dressing Room's decorative scheme is appropriately complex and opulent. The woodwork is of the finest materials: shimmering satinwood embellished with tropical purpleheart (named for its deep purplish hue) and lustrous mother-of-pearl. The door and window surrounds feature marquetry decoration depicting myriad objects from a lady's toilette: at the sides, a comb, scissors, and hand mirror—all for the lady's coiffure—along with a needle case on a chain and darning egg with handle, for sewing projects; at the top, decorative hair combs. Various necklace and earring motifs are interspersed throughout.
Arabella Worsham Huntington (ca. 1850–1924)
Arabella Worsham rose from humble origins to become one of the wealthiest women in the world and a great patron of the arts. A native of Richmond, Virginia, Worsham moved to New York in 1867 with her widowed mother and siblings. In 1870, she bore a son, Archer, possibly fathered by her future husband, railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington, who was almost thirty years her senior. While the house was undergoing renovations, Worsham traveled to Paris, where she commissioned this portrait by Alexandre Cabanel, the leading society painter of his day.
Arabella Worsham and Collis Huntington
When Arabella Worsham married Collis P. Huntington in 1884, shortly after the death of his first wife, she moved into his house at 65 Park Avenue. (They would later live in a far grander house at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.) When Huntington died in 1900, he bequeathed to Arabella two-thirds of his estate, valued at more than $35 million, making her an astonishingly wealthy woman. As Mrs. Huntington, she established herself as a prominent art collector and philanthropist. She purchased Rembrandt's Aristotle with a Bust of Homer in 1907 through the art dealer Joseph Duveen. The painting is now an icon in The Met collection.
Arabella Worsham and Henry Huntington
In 1913, Arabella married her late husband's nephew, Henry E. Huntington (1850–1927), a man of her own age. With their combined fortunes, they formed impressive collections: Henry focused on rare books; Arabella, on paintings and jewelry. They settled in San Marino, California, establishing in 1919 the institution that today encompasses the Huntington Art Gallery, Library, and Gardens. Arabella's son, Archer Huntington, became a collector of Hispanic art and in 1904 founded the Hispanic Society of America in one of the impressive Beaux-Arts buildings he developed on Audubon Terrace in New York City.
George A. Schastey (1839–1894)
George A. Schastey headed one of the preeminent cabinetmaking and decorating firms of the Gilded Age. Born in Meresburg, Germany, he immigrated to New York in 1849 among those fleeing political unrest in Europe. After fighting for the Union in the American Civil War, Schastey worked for several of New York's leading cabinetmakers and decorators before opening his own business in 1873. At its peak in the 1880s, Shastey's company occupied a five-story factory at Broadway and 53rd Street and employed at least 125 people.
Attribution to Schastey
The identity of the designer responsible for the interiors of the Worsham-Rockefeller House remained a mystery until the discovery in the 1970s of two letters from George A. Schastey to John D. Rockefeller. They were written in 1884, the year Rockefeller bought the house. In the first, Schastey stated,"I have furnished the house 4 West 54th and can give you all the information you may desire, should you contemplate buying.…"; in the second, he wrote, "The interior woodwork and decoration of your new residence…. [were] designed and executed by us." Rockefeller subsequently commissioned Schastey to maintain the decorations.
The Rockefeller family
John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) and his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller (1864–1915), were the final owners of the house at 4 West 54th Street, which they acquired from Worsham in 1884. Rockefeller, co-founder of the Standard Oil Company, amassed an extraordinary fortune, becoming the world's first billionaire. After he retired in 1897, the couple spent most of their time at Kykuit, the family estate in Tarrytown, New York, and probably used the West 54th Street home only occasionally, ensuring its remarkably preserved condition.
Saving the rooms
Following Rockefeller's death in 1937, the West 54th Street house was demolished, but not before the family saved three rooms—the bedroom, the Dressing Room, and the Moorish reception room—virtually intact, an expression of their appreciation of these interiors as time capsules of Gilded Age taste. The rooms were donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. to The Museum of the City of New York and the Brooklyn Museum. As early patrons of the Museum of Modern Art, the Rockefellers donated the lot on which the house stood to that museum, where it is now the Sculpture Garden.
A permanent home
While undergoing renovations in 2007, The Museum of the City of New York removed the Dressing Room and master bedroom. The Dressing Room was donated to The Met and the bedroom to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Fortunately, the only available space in the Museum's American Wing—a decommissioned stairwell—proved to have the right size and proportions and to be ideally situated for presenting the Dressing Room within the Museum's existing chronological display of American period rooms and galleries.
Conservation of the Dressing Room
The woodwork has survived in excellent condition, and a gentle cleaning revealed the original honey-colored luster of the satinwood. The original canvas ceiling and frieze were stabilized and cleaned, while the teal and gold fabric of the window curtains and upholstery was reproduced based on a fragment of the original material found on the slipper chair. Curators designed the window curtains based on surviving drawings from George A. Schastey & Co. and incorporated original hardware used in the house.
Dressing table and dressing glass
Though sparsely furnished, the room features an elegant dressing table and accompanying dressing glass that are en suite with the architectural woodwork. The table's undulating, splayed legs are adorned with slender vines inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The fretwork stretcher features scrolled elements and supports a padded pillow that was intended to cushion Arabella Worsham's feet. The carved putti finials and marquetry ornament on the delicate dressing glass recall ornamental motifs in the architectural woodwork. The table rests on castors, allowing it to be moved easily within the room.
The two side chairs of satinwood and purpleheart, like the dressing table, enhance the overall ensemble. On the chair backs, the marquetry decoration of grotesque masks and vines echoes the ornamental motifs in the Dressing Room's architectural woodwork. The overall form of the chairs is light and rectilinear. The tapered front legs with cascading bellflowers channel the spirit of English Neoclassical designers such as Robert Adam and George Hepplewhite.
The chandelier, pendant fixture, and wall brackets feature unusual panels inlaid with mother-of-pearl in floral motifs, echoing the room's overall decor. When originally installed by Schastey's firm, the light fixtures were lit by gas. The flickering glow of the gas flame through the opalescent glass shades subtly played on the large mirrors, the highly polished wood surfaces, the mother-of-pearl inlay, and the gold-and-silver-stenciled walls. The lighting fixtures were later electrified under the Rockefeller family's ownership.
Every room in the house had an elaborately painted ceiling and frieze. Those in the Dressing Room—hand-painted and stenciled on canvas—are by Virgilio Tojetti (1849–1901), an Italian-born decorative painter who collaborated with George Schastey during the 1870s and 1880s. Sprightly dancing cherubs, each one distinctive, animate the frieze. Consistent with the theme of personal adornment, they hold garlands of shells and pearls that evoke the necklaces and earrings depicted elsewhere in the room. Smaller renderings of pearl and gold brooches ornament the lower register of the frieze.
The original carpets in the Dressing Room survive but are in poor condition. Commissioned by The Met, a reproduction of the room's Turkish carpet was handwoven in Turkey, like the original, from wool dyed with natural pigments. The weavers of the modern carpet were refugees from Syria, young women trained in this traditional craft. As in Arabella Worsham's day, the Turkish carpet lies on top of a plain wool carpet that runs wall to wall.
Ever since its establishment in 1870 the Museum has acquired important examples of American Art. A separate "American Wing" building to display the domestic arts of the 17th to early 19th centuries opened in 1924; paintings galleries and an enclosed sculpture court were added in 1980.
American Wing Research Assistant, Moira Gallagher, discusses Gilded Age cabinetmaker and decorator George A. Schastey. Learn more about this previously unknown master craftsman, now recognized as one of the great artisans of his age.