Sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a Bohemian aristocrat, left a strong legacy of patronage in the institution she founded: the Whitney Museum of American Art. The long-term survival of two lavishly decorated studios in which she created her own works of art, one in Greenwich Village and one in the town of Old Westbury on Long Island, however, is dubious.
The Long Island Studio, the final fragment sold from what was once a 1,000-acre property owned by the Whitney family, recently launched for $ 4.75 million. And while Whitney's descendants have maintained the studio as a shrine of sorts to their famous ancestor, hoping to find a buyer who will value its story as much as they do, there's nothing but goodwill and taste to deter a new owner to destroy the structure that contains lush, built-in artwork that Mrs. Whitney commissioned for the space.
The Greenwich Village Studio, a former hayloft at 19 Macdougal Alley that she bought in 1907, was the first piece of a complex of four connected townhouses and back coach houses on West Eighth Street that Mrs. Whitney bought over time and eventually moved into Whitney converted the museum's first home in 1931. The entire site has been owned by the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture since 1967.
Gertrude Vanderbilt, a great-granddaughter of the railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, was born in 1875 and grew up in her father Cornelius Vanderbilt II's ornate castle at 1 West 57th Street. She married the athlete Harry Payne Whitney in 1896, also a wealthy heir.
Ms. Whitney was a forward-thinking advocate of contemporary American artists at a time when American museums and collectors generally reserved their wall space for European art and limited their interest in American works to the safe academic. And their patronage extended to inviting fellow artists to decorate their own private workspaces.
At the heart of the Macdougal Alley studio is a stunning sculptural inferno of bronze and plaster of paris flames that rises up the outside of a 20 foot chimney, consuming tiny tortured figures in the process, before scorching the edge of a phantasmagoric ceiling teeming with bas-relief celestial bodies and Beasts: a grinning anthropomorphized sun, snakes, a dragon and a pair of squids fighting hand in hand.
This brash, three-dimensional act of fantasy was committed by Mrs. Whitney's friend Robert Winthrop Chanler, a hard-living, hard-loving offspring of Astor whose work was featured on the groundbreaking 1913 New York Armory Show. But the Whitney Studio, a national historic landmark, has suffered. The ceiling and fireplace, once brightly colored, were whitewashed at some point in the distant past, and in 2008 a small section of the ceiling's curved cornice collapsed.
The World Monuments Fund awarded a $ 50,000 grant to help develop a better understanding of its construction and materials. The architects Kaitsen Woo came to the conclusion that the removal of the cornice was an isolated case and the ceiling was ultimately classified as stable. Scientists were then hired from 2008 to around 2013 to further study the ceiling and chimney and develop protection strategies.
At this point, however, the room has been examined within an inch of its lifespan, and despite the cracks running through the curved cornice of the ceiling, there is no formal maintenance or even a basic crack monitoring program. The windows are drafty and the temperature control is so rudimentary that a recent visit found plastic sheeting covering the interiors of the two pairs of haylofts.
"It makes me very nervous," said Alex Williams, director of development at the Studio School, as she pointed to a crack that cut a mermaid in half on the edge of the ceiling. "Sometimes I don't even want to look up at the ceiling – it's very stressful."
In 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the studio a national treasure and donated $ 30,000 to repair the floor and install a new lighting system.
The school appealed to individuals and foundations to raise funds for additional conservation, Ms. Williams said, but success is difficult to achieve. There are currently no fundraising campaigns for the restoration as the school is already working hard to raise money to support its core education mission.
"This has been a vulnerable space – for many years – and it's the problem of paralysis by analysis," said Lauren Drapala, an architectural conservator who studied the ceiling extensively. Since Mr Chanler's original complex color scheme is hidden behind layers of white paint, "there are so many unanswered questions about what this room looked like that any intervention could potentially be disastrous," she said. "I believe there is a fear that if we do something we could destroy it, but in the meantime it is inaccessible and not repaired, and this raises concerns about its long-term longevity."
Mrs. Whitney's studio in Old Westbury, near the mansion she – unfortunately – shared with her philandering husband, was built in 1912 according to plans by the social architects Delano & Aldrich.
This wasn't an attic. The limestone structure was reminiscent of an Italian villa and was complemented by a formal garden and pool. It featured a spacious central work area with a 20-foot skylight through which the artist-prized northern lights streamed. This studio, too, has been adorned with works of art by Mr. Chanler: a bedroom with a gloomy mural in medieval style and a Jules Verne infused bathroom with a sunken marble tub in deep green.
The painter Jerome Myers reverently recalled an opening party where he saw "sunken ponds and beautiful white peacocks as line decorations in the gardens" and "brilliant macaws nodding their beaks". Inside he met "Chanler shows us his exotic lake pictures" and "Mrs. Whitney shows her studio, the only place in the world where she could find solitude."
Subsequent parties in the studio attracted the likes of Albert Einstein and Charles Lindbergh. For a soiree, Mr. Chanler sent two kangaroos that were placed in the empty pool for party-goers to marvel at.
Mr. Chanler, who shared his self-described Fantasy House and outbuilding on East 19th Street in Manhattan with exotic animals such as a spider monkey, herons and flamingos, held Ms. Whitney in a certain way.
"How good he is in his own way," she wrote in her diary. “Aside from the fact that he's a cheat and a flirt, he's inspiring. … Listen, listen with a thousand ears to what he says. "
The studio stood idle after Mrs. Whitney's death in 1942 and deteriorated until Pamela LeBoutillier, a granddaughter, converted it into a house in 1982 by adding a grand piano on either side. She moved in with a son and daughter, one of whom, John LeBoutillier, still lives there.
"My mother adored Gertrude," with whom she had lived for a year as a young woman, said the 67-year-old LeBoutillier. "My mom said," We're going to set up the studio like it was when I was a kid who was here. "
At the central work station, a hook that was once part of a block-and-tackle mechanism hangs over a trapdoor in the floor. "She would work up here with her male assistants and when the piece was done they would lower it through the trapdoor into the basement," said LeBoutillier. "And they would put it on a cart and a pony would pull it through a tunnel to the ovens."
In tribute to Mrs. Whitney, the family rebuilt their long-ruined Parisian bedroom, removed their bed, dressing table and other personal items from storage, and furnished the chamber to match an old family painting of the Parisian room.
Mrs. Whitney, who studied with Auguste Rodin, described her sculptures as “emotions milled out of clay”. Her favorite sibling, Alfred Vanderbilt, was on board the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915. After giving his life jacket to a woman with a baby, he drowned and devastated Mrs. Whitney.
In 1982 her descendants found a plaster maquette in the basement of the studio for their proposed memorial for the victims of the sinking of the Lusitania. The maquette showed a mother and a baby in a lifeboat held up by lost souls.
Although the memorial was never built, the emotional cost of the war had a huge impact on Mrs. Whitney. There are bronze sculptures of doughboys from the First World War on the grounds of the studio. Her Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial is located in Mitchel Square in Upper Manhattan.
The studio's collection of built-in artwork has been eroded over time. To raise funds for a relative's medical expenses, the family sold a Maxfield Parrish mural in 1999 depicting troubadours and Renaissance celebrities. And the winding main staircase was originally adorned with a vibrant wraparound mural depicting a portrait of Mrs. Whitney in an androgynous avant-garde ballet outfit. The work was done by her friend Howard Gardiner Cushing, whom Mr. LeBoutillier believes was her lover too. But the mural that adorns the stairs today is a replica; The original was sold to descendants of Cushing about four years ago.
Prior to the pandemic, the Whitney Museum curators were interested in exhibiting the Cushing mural, but a museum spokeswoman said there are currently no plans to do so. She added that the museum couldn't afford to buy the Long Island Studio.
Macdougal Alley Studio has also lost some artwork. Mr. Chanler envisioned the room as a mesmerizing experience that included a decorative screen and seven stained glass windows depicting a bohemian mess of fantastic creatures. All of these were removed a long time ago. Five of the windows languished in a nearby antique store until they were eventually bought by James Alexandre, a Pennsylvania collector who also acquired the other two, one of which had once served as a shower door for a Whitney offspring. Mr Alexandre said that if requested, he would consider making and installing digital reproductions of the windows in the Macdougal studio.
Mrs. Whitney used her growing West Eighth Street real estate portfolio to display works by emerging American artists, whose creations she also bought steadily. In 1929 she sent her assistant Juliana Force to offer her collection of more than 600 contemporary American works of art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met refused the gift and Mrs. Whitney responded, using her enormous wealth to open what might be called, and apologized to Virginia Woolf, a "museum of its own".
Progress in restoring Mrs. Whitney's Village Studio was slowed, in part, by technical challenges encountered while studying teams from the University of Pennsylvania and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts under the additional guidance of architectural curator Mary A. Jablonski .
With both the fireplace and the ceiling, coated in multiple coats of white paint, "it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to go back to the original coat without destroying it," said Bonnie Burnham, Studio School board member at Conducting the studies was also managing director of the World Monuments Fund. She added that any restoration would necessarily be speculative and that the studio space "contradicts the central mission of the school and there are only so many question marks and so many competing priorities for the institution that nothing has really moved on."
For the time being, the school's immediate goals for the space do not extend beyond repairing the windows.
Meanwhile, both the Village and Long Island studios are "incredibly endangered," said Gina Wouters, co-editor of Robert Winthrop Chanler: Discovering the Fantastic.
"It's the integral nature of the work of art that was the problem," she said in those spaces that were originally so private. "It's like a brilliant puzzle that Whitney and Chanler created for us: how do you store them, and how do you make them accessible when it's nearly impossible?"
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