The Louis C. Tiffany Foundation
Tiffany built Laurelton Hall on six hundred acres of land at Oyster Bay, Long Island from 1902 to 1905 after inheriting 3 million from his father. He oversaw every aspect of the estate’s execution, from the architecture and interior design of the eighty-four roomed main house, to the landscaping of the gardens, terraces, fountains, pools and extensive outbuildings. Laurelton Hall was ever evolving as Tiffany continued to add architectural embellishments and interior adjustments throughout his life. It was here that Tiffany’s belief in the Aesthetic movement’s tenets of the commingling of all the arts to create a complete and unified interior achieved the grandest effects.
Everything about Laurelton Hall was staged to impress upon the visitor the grand magnificence of nature and Tiffany’s interpretation of it. A visitor approached the house from the southeast drive, entering through the Moorish-esque gatehouse that guarded the entrance. The road forked in two, offering a path to the left that past landscaped fields and the 1893 Tiffany chapel from the World’s Columbian Exposition, and one to the right with stunning views of the harbor, apple orchards, and fields planted with wildflowers. All of the estate’s landscapes were carefully controlled, planted to flower from early spring through fall. The house itself was covered in cream colored stucco that reflected daylight in various shades, from a glistening white in the morning sun to a grayish haunting color at dusk. The shimmering stained glass windows mounted amid the stucco also took on new characteristics with the changing light.
Like other contemporary interior designers, Tiffany focused on surfaces, covering the walls, ceilings, and floors of Laurelton Hall with complex patterns derived from nature and other historic influences. Tiffany said about his interiors in a 1913 pamphlet published by his firm entitled Character and Individuality in Decorations and Furnishings, “Every really great structure is simple in its lines – as in Nature, - every great scheme of decoration thrusts no one note upon the eye… the charm of homes of refinement is in the artistic blending that is revealed when everything has its place and purpose, and when every detail unites to form one perfect and complete whole.” The rooms of Laurelton Hall were more focused, modern, and sparer than Tiffany’s previous interiors. Throughout the main areas of Laurelton Hall Tiffany erected museum style cases to house the best examples of glass from his own business endeavors along with glass from Ancient Rome and Syria, Egyptian Jewelry, Near Eastern and Chinese Ceramics, and a collection of Native American handicrafts.
Each of the three main rooms – the Fountain Court, living hall, and dining room – were strategically positioned to provide two exposures, a harbor view, and the opposite landscape hillside. Tiffany’s knowledge of light and color dominated the floor plan for the estate, laid out not in a traditional manner, but to fit the contours of the landscape and take full advantage of the sites natural beauty and expansive vistas. The Fountain Court served as the entrance to the house. The three storied space centered around a fountain which sprouted through a four foot tall favrile glass vase in the center of an octagonal pool surrounded by various house plants which were changed seasonally. The main space was framed by fluted marble columns supporting two upper balcony galleries with slender columns with sixteen hanging glass globes. Tiffany used these upper galleries to display a large portion of his pottery and glass collection. This large court was completed by a “thin violet-toned” leaded glass dome which cast an amethyst hue into the court day and night. Other grand rooms, such as the Living Hall and Dining Room were located off the Fountain Hall and decorated in different styles, but all with an eye towards creating a cohesive decorative scheme.
Beginning in 1914 Tiffany began to relocate many of his best stained glass windows to the Living Room of Laurelton Hall from his Seventy-second Street residence and Tiffany Studios. “The Bathers” originally conceived to be shown at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, was installed instead at Laurelton Hall in 1915. Tiffany, upon learning that the Exposition hall lacked a window opening large enough to provide natural light for the entire ten-by-sixteen foot window, displayed it at his Madison Avenue showroom where it attracted the attention of art critics. Eventually the living room came to house nine or more of Tiffany’s most significant works in the medium, installed in chronological order, representing the peak of his skill.
In 1918 Tiffany established the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation in which he deeded Laurelton Hall, the 62 acre estate, his personal art collection and a large endowment with the aim of establishing a program to nurture young artistic talent. To this end Tiffany converted parts of the estate to accommodate the new educational endeavors. Stables were converted into artist housing, a bowling alley into a Native American art gallery, and an environment focused on fostering creative freedom was formed. The estate became a museum and art institute to encourage the appreciation and production of art. Moreover, it was a means of preserving the Tiffany legacy and artistic style in a time when his works were losing popularity on the market as tastes evolved. Multiple art colonies populated Long Island because of its quant fishing villages, natural beauty, and proximity to Manhattan. The Tiffany Foundation was unique in that the grounds were specifically designed and created to promote creativity, rather than selected and adapted for use. The Constitution of the Louis Comfort Tiffany foundation stated that Laurelton Hall was to be, “a place were students could… find a stimulus in the atmosphere and surroundings of Laurelton, and by the contact with other students and artists.” There were no stylistic guidelines or standards for students, or fellows as they were called, to follow. Fellows were encouraged to work at their art but given no specific approach to follow and were not pupils under a teacher but rather collaborators. Each fellow was asked to leave a piece selected by the art advisors of the foundation as an example of their study at Laurelton Hall, however by 1927, so many examples were presented to the foundation that the policy had to be relaxed.
During the remainder of his life Tiffany continued to add to the artistic and financial holdings of the foundation. Tiffany displayed the various awards and medals he had received during his career as encouragement to the fellows and as a reminder of his success and accomplishments. Tiffany also left Tiffany & Co. stock, his Miami winter residence, and a collection of photographs from Tiffany Studios to the foundation. By the mid-1920’s the foundation was experiencing financial difficulties, usually remedied by personal donations from Tiffany and his close family and friends. The stock market crash of 1929 reduced the $1.475 million endowment by a third, crippling the dividends that the foundation relied on for funding. Property taxes on the massive estate also began to hinder the foundation’s ability to function as a school. Throughout the increasing financial problems Tiffany insisted, “Under no conditions must the Foundation School ever close; that is the fundamental part of the foundation, and for which it was established. Without the School there could be no Foundation.”
Following Tiffany’s death in 1933 the Foundation succeeded in gaining tax exempt status as an educational institution. Laurelton Estate was temporarily contracted in 1942 by the Research Committee of the Council of National Defense for “important and secret experiments in the field of art” in reality anti-submarine warfare research. At the close of the war the estate was returned to the Foundation for use, but again the costs of maintaining the property proved too much. In 1946 much of the personal art collection Tiffany has amassed at Laurelton hall was sold at auction. Tiffany’s personal effects were offered to family members, the remains of which were also sold. By 1949 the property had been divided into parcels and sold with the profit going to support the Foundations greatly decreased endowment. The main house at Laurelton Hall, valued at $13,000,000 was purchased for $10,000 in 1949 by a couple looking for a “summer bungalow.” The celebrated stained glass windows, including “The Bathers” installed in the living-room alcove, remained inside Laurelton Hall.
In 1957 Laurelton Hall suffered a devastating fire. The majority of the main building and remaining architectural accents, including “The Bathers” window which was smashed by firefighters to gain entrance, were lost in the flames. The artist Hugh F. McKean, who had been a fellow at Laurelton Hall in 1930, along with his wife Jeanette Genius McKean, salvaged many of the original stained glass windows and interior decoration that remained from the ruined estate. The pair donated the four-column loggia from the estate to the MET museum and the remaining salvaged Tiffany artifacts are housed at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.