Louis Tiffany was, by 1890, firmly established as one of America’s leading designers and manufacturers of leaded glass windows. Originally finding national acclaim as a painter and superb colorist, Tiffany was by the late 1870s one of the first artists of note in this country to become an interior decorator. His well-publicized work in the Madison Square Theater, Seventh Regiment Armory (now known as the Park Avenue Armory) and the White House brought him international fame. Leaded glass windows were widely featured in several of his commissions and Tiffany, by the mid-1880s, decided to focus on that aspect of his work. The decorating firm was disbanded and the Tiffany Glass Company was established in 1885. This did not mean, however, that Tiffany had totally abandoned interior design.
Charles Lewis Tiffany, the primary owner of Tiffany and Company and Louis’ father, acquired a large plot of land at the corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street. He soon hired the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to design a mansion that would house several members of the Tiffany family. Louis quickly took a leading role in controlling the layout and interior decoration of the structure. Completed in 1885, the 57-room building was one the largest private residences in New York City. Louis Tiffany and his family moved into the fourth and fifth floors, the latter of which became his studio. The 2500-square foot room, with a 50-foot ceiling, epitomized the artist’s decorating style: “The studio proper is Mr. Tiffany’s own design and follows no accepted rules. It is more like some such wonder as Aladdin used to rub out of his wonderful lamp than anything else.”
Numerous parties and charitable events were held in the studio and reviewed at length by the local press. Henry Osborne Havemeyer, and his wife Louisine, were well acquainted with Tiffany’s audacious and daring decorative style when, in 1890, they were preparing to build their own mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 66th Street. H.O. Havemeyer was one of the wealthiest men in the country, having amassed a fortune in the sugar refining business. He and Louisine were among the first American collectors of Impressionist art and they needed a larger and more impressive setting for their rapidly expanding collection than their brownstone on East 36th Street. Charles Haight, best known at the time for designing much of the campus at Columbia College and with whom Tiffany had collaborated previously, was hired as architect. Louis Tiffany and Samuel Colman, Tiffany’s close friend, mentor, and former business partner, were assigned the task of decorating the interior. Both Tiffany and Colman were long-time associates of the Havemeyers and the chance to create a unified design, without interference or financial restrictions, was too great an opportunity for them to resist.
It was a massive undertaking, with Colman assisting on the Music Room and Tiffany responsible for the remainder. In June 1890, Colman wrote to his colleague and fellow painter, James D. Smillie: “Mr. Havemeyer has given Tiffany the other parts of his house to do so that we will be deeply engaged together all summer and all autumn and very likely into the winter.” The job took even longer than Colman had anticipated. When finally completed in the spring of 1892, the interior of the Havemeyer mansion was unlike any in the world. No surface was left untouched, all of it bearing Tiffany’s eclectic style, ranging from Celtic to Moorish to Byzantine to Japanese. Glass mosaics enhanced the walls, special lighting fixtures hung from the ornate ceilings, several leaded glass windows were installed and specially designed furniture was created. Even the extraordinary balustrade, a section of which is on offer, bears Tiffany’s unmistakable touch.
The balustrade was incorporated around the balcony of the two-story picture galleries and on the “flying staircase” that allowed access to some of those rooms. The principal material used was finely wrought iron, a material that was in vogue at the time and was being used “in decorative establishments of the first order in New York and Boston.” Slender vertical footed columns on the front and sides were finely cast with spiraled beading for their entire lengths. Between each set of columns are three intricate curvilinear arabesques with serrated edges that retain some of the original gilt. These superbly crafted ornate sections of scrollwork have an upper and lower opening that are beautifully set with opalescent white molded glass jewels. Each jewel ranges in tone from near-transparent at the angular tip to a pearly white at the thicker oviform body and is an exceptional compliment to the metalwork.
Louisine Havemeyer, in her published memoir, reflected on what her decorative philosophy was when the family mansion was in its planning stage: “How often have I wished that those who are building new homes or decorating old ones would try and get away from the old moth-eaten Tudor embroidery…and have faith in someone who has the artistic ability and give him a chance to add another paragraph to art’s long and intricate history.” She and her husband gave Louis Tiffany that opportunity and he far surpassed their expectations. The Havemeyer mansion was torn down shortly after Louisine’s death in 1929 and much of its contents were sold at auction the following year. This section of the balustrade is one of the few remaining elements of the house in private hands and presents a rare opportunity to possess a significant object from a truly historic commission.