Rooms fit for a museum

Boiserie from the Hotel de Varengeville. The Worsham- Rockefeller Dressing Room (right).
Boiserie from the Hotel de Varengeville. The Worsham- Rockefeller Dressing Room (above). PHOTOS: THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART IN NEW YORK CITY
Living room from the Little House (above).
Living room from the Little House (above).
Dining room from the Lansdowne House (above).
Dining room from the Lansdowne House (above).

Spaces of historical importance now have pride of place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

A dressing room - a large closet devoted to the putting on and taking off of clothing - has just gone on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The room, labelled the Worsham- Rockefeller Dressing Room after its two previous owners, is a dizzying, gilded-age assemblage of competing wallpaper patterns, woodwork and metal ornament.

Still. The Met has one of the largest and most important collections of art in the world: Why did a dressing room end up migrating from a house slated for demolition on West 54th Street to a museum's hallowed halls? And what, for that matter, did every owner of the three-dozen period rooms do to get their homes on display?

By narrating the history of some of the rooms, three of the Met's curators have helped supply an answer to what it takes to get your bedroom into the Met.

Boiserie from the Hotel de Varengeville.


The Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room: Commissioned in 1881 by Arabella Worsham, wife of a railroad baron, and later sold to John D. Rockefeller, who lived in the house for the better part of 50 years, the room was first installed in the Museum of the City of New York. When that museum offered it to the Met, "we were just finishing the multi- million-dollar redo in the American Wing", said Ms Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, a curator of American decorative arts. "The idea of taking another period room was kind of crazy."

Parlor Stairhall from the Metcalfe House (above).

But they discovered that an unused, interior fire stair had the exact proportions of the dressing room. So after a year's worth of conservation, the room was installed.


Room from the Hart House: Not for broke. Actually broke. "In the 1920s, curators really wanted the room," said Ms Amelia Peck, curator of American decorative arts. "They asked the family at the time who owned it if they'd be willing to sell and they said no. They were using it as a tea room, for people to have lovely colonial teas."

Then the global depression of the 1930s hit. "At that point, they were in dire straits and they sold it," Ms Peck said. "They were in the Great Depression and the room was a commodity." The house in Ipswich, Massachussetts, still stands.


Parlor Stairhall from the Metcalfe House: By the 1970s, the Metcalfe house, a charming 1886 gabled structure in Buffalo designed by the renowned firm McKim, Mead and White, had fallen on hard times. The times, however, were about to get a whole lot harder.

"A company bought the building to tear it down and turn into a parking lot," said Ms Peck.

Preservationists protested and a compromise was reached: The company would get its parking lot, but "the house was taken apart and we got the stairhall", she added.


Living room from the Little House: The owners of this stunning house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright "felt it was unliveable", said Ms Peck.

"But because of zoning, they weren't allowed to build two buildings on the same property."

Faced with weighing quality of life with architectural-historical martyrdom, the family opted "to tear it down", Ms Peck said.

The Met Museum, alarmed by the potential obliteration of an architectural treasure, stepped in and bought the building. "We took it apart, kept the living room for ourselves and were able to place two other rooms with other museums," Ms Peck said.


The Baltimore Dining Room: "A lot of these rooms had been through multiple owners by the time they got to us," said Ms Peck.

"And some of them had transitioned from very lovely residential neighbourhoods into... something else."

This room, which the Met purchased with its original woodwork intact, "had been turned into some kind of workshop", Ms Peck said.


The Lansdowne Dining Room: Designed by Robert Adam on the south-west corner of Berkeley Square in London, the Met's text noted that the building "had the dubious distinction of belonging to two of the most unpopular British statesmen of the 18th century".

It had the similarly dubious and yet infinitely more dire distinction of being "in the way of the municipal government, which was changing Berkeley Square", said Ms Danielle Kisluk-Grosheide, a curator of European decorative arts. The dining room, in turn, was slated to be ripped down, but "the Met stepped in and saved it".


Boiserie from the Hotel de Varengeville: "The French period rooms are very beautiful and contain some of the most spectacular pieces of French decorative arts outside of France, but they're not complete rooms," saidMs Kisluk-Grosheide.

"The fabulous panelling came from aristocratic homes inside Paris... but most of the furniture came from royal situations."

And by "situations", she was referring to the decapitation of Marie Antoinette and her husband, Louis XVI, and the subsequent fire sale of royal possessions to fund the fledgling French republic's war budget.


Room from a hotel in the Cours d'Albret: "We have two rooms given by the Strauses, who were descendants of the founders of Macy's department store," said Ms Kisluk- Grosheide.

"They began to build a beautiful house at 9 East 71st Street, but Mr Straus died in 1933."

A distraught Mrs Straus "couldn't see herself living in the house", Ms Kisluk-Grosheide said, "and so donated the panelling" - including the lovely, hand-carved panels from a hotel they had bought in Bordeaux, France.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'Rooms fit for a museum'. Print Edition | Subscribe