Tiffany is best known for his brilliantly colored leaded-glass lamps, which fetch astonishing prices on the antiques market. But the full impact of Tiffany's vision played out at Laurelton Hall, his 600-acre estate on the north shore of Long Island in New York. Tiffany designed and built an 84-room house on the property, decorating every exotic inch in homage to the restorative powers of the natural environment.
“Nature really drove a lot of what Laurelton Hall was,” says Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, curator of “Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall: An Artist's Country Estate,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition, which opened in November and runs through May 20, 2007, seeks to recreate Tiffany's lost idyll—the house was destroyed by fire in 1957.
Frelinghuysen's selection of 250 salvaged architectural elements and other extraordinary objects from the house suggests the aesthetic power of a forgotten masterpiece, while providing a worthwhile reminder that nature was a preoccupation in architecture long before the advent of the green movement.
Tiffany directed a seemingly infinite number of designs for objects, interiors, and houses. His best-remembered architectural project is a mansion his father commissioned for the family at Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street in Manhattan. Completed in 1888, the 57-room Romanesque Revival residence was officially the work of Stanford White, but its design bears young Tiffany's unmistakable signature, especially on the interior. Outfitted with art glass and objects from Japan, India, and Pompeii, the Fifth Avenue interiors served as a showcase for Tiffany's emerging vision. But even this astonishing beauty was eclipsed by the Long Island dream house.
Laurelton Hall was a total work of art and an aesthetic argument for the benefits of living in harmony with nature. Tiffany devoted himself to its design from 1902 to 1905. Vintage photos show a sprawling, vaguely Moorish manse; its oxidized copper roof formed a brilliant green canopy over a stucco façade. Windows glowed with spectacular mosaics of amethyst wisteria, burnt orange pumpkins, and goldfish. Column capitals were dressed up with motifs of blooms cultivated on the landscape, which descended to a private beach on Long Island Sound.
Tiffany had intended for his estate to sustain future generations of artists. But the Utopian dream of a creative summer colony began to fade after the 1929 stock market crash. In 1932, a year before Tiffany's death, his studio declared bankruptcy. Laurelton Hall's furnishings and objects were not dispersed until a five-day auction in 1946. Three years later, the property was sold, with leaded windows in place, for $10,000, but the house was largely unoccupied. The disastrous and still mysterious fire, which lasted for 24 hours, sealed Laurelton Hall's fate.
On Frelinghuysen's initial visit, little more than a Moorish minaret inset with iridescent blue tiles, which Tiffany had designed as a smokestack, remained amid houses built in the early 1960s. Had Laurelton Hall's richly organic interiors survived intact, she believes, Tiffany's country home would have been “the most important historic house in America.” If the house is lost to history, the exhibition's recreation of Tiffany's rooms will inspire today's architects, who are forging a new kind of relationship between building and nature.