A dressing room, i.e., a large closet devoted explicitly 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, labeled 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 the following rooms, three of the Met's curators have helped supply an answer to what it takes to get your bedroom into the Met.
The Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room: Commissioned in 1881 by Arabella Worsham, the 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 dressing 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 Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, a curator of American decorative arts. "The idea of taking another period room was kind of crazy." They discovered, however, that an unused, interior fire stair had the exact proportions—"within half an inch," said Frelinghuysen—of the dressing room. So after a year's worth of conservation and "documenting everything within an inch of its life," she said, the room was installed.
2. Going Broke
Room from the Hart House: Not for broke. Actually broke. "In the 1920s, curators really wanted the room," said 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 come have lovely colonial teas." Then the global depression of the 1930s hit, and the family discovered that there was not, it turned out, a sufficient market for lovely colonial tea to sustain their livelihoods. "At that point they were in dire straits, and they sold it," Peck said. "They were in the Great Depression and the room was a commodity." The house, located in Ipswich Mass., still stands.
3. Going Shopping
Boudoir from the Hôtel de Crillon: In 1906, Jeanette Dwight Bliss, wife of wealthy New York banker George T. Bliss, began to build a mansion that still stands on East 68th Street. She went to Paris to look for interior decoration for her new house. At the time, the Hôtel de Crillon was a private mansion in central Paris owned by the Ducs de Polignac. "She bought it right out of the building," said Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, a curator of European decorative arts. "She must have walked right in there." Bliss's architect was "very precise," said Kisluk-Grosheide. "It's not ripping it out of a room, it's carefully taking out the paneling." In 1942, in turn, Bliss's unmarried daughter Susan downsized; instead of selling the room, she donated it to the Met.
4. Trying to Turn It Into a Parking Lot
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 Meade 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 Peck, the curator. Preservationists protested, and a compromise was reached: The company would get its parking lot, but "the house was taken apart, and we got the stair hall," Peck said. "I think other Buffalo institutions kept parts of it, too."
5. Getting In Trouble With the Zoning Board
Living room from the Little House: The owners of this stunning house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright "felt it was unlivable," said Peck. "But because of zoning, they weren't allowed to build two buildings on the same property." Faced to weigh quality of life with architectural-historical martyrdom, the family opted "to tear it down," Peck said. The Met Museum, alarmed by the potential obliteration of an architectural treasure, stepped in and actually bought the building. "We took it apart, kept the living room for ourselves, and were able to place two other rooms with other museums," Peck said.
6. Poverty, Again!
Dining room from Kirtlington Park: "When we bought the dining room, it was still privately owned, said Kisluk-Grosheide, "though not in the hands of the original family." In 1931, the Met was on the hunt for period rooms for its new wing, where its English galleries would be housed; the dining room's owner, who had also "fallen on hard times," offered to sell it—walls, floors, ceiling, ornament, and chandeliers—to the Met, which happily obliged. The room, therefore, is maintained in the exact dimensions and condition that it had been in situ.
7. Existing in Baltimore
The Baltimore Dining Room: "A lot of these rooms had been through multiple owners by the time they got to us," said Peck. "And some of them had transitioned from very lovely residential neighborhoods into ... something else." This room, which the Met purchased with its original woodwork intact, "had been turned into some kind of workshop," Peck says. "Some of these houses weren't even being used as houses."
8. Existing on Berkeley Square
The Lansdowne Dining Room: Designed by Robert Adam on the Southwest 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 eighteenth 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," Kisluk-Grosheide said. The dining room, in turn, was slated to be ripped down, but "the Met stepped in and saved it," she said.
9. Becoming a Tool of the French Revolution
Boiserie from the Hôtel 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," said Kisluk-Grosheide. "The fabulous paneling came from aristocratic homes inside Paris"—including the paneling above—"but most of the furniture came from royal situations." And by "situations," Kisluk-Grosheide is 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. "Kind of a luxury problem to have, that the furniture is grander than the rooms, but there you are," she said.
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 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," Kisluk-Grosheide said, "and so donated the paneling"—including the lovely, hand-carved panels from a hotel they'd bought in Bordeaux, France.