Revisiting The Tiffany Reading Room

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By Ginny Read

The Tiffany Reading Room, Location: Irvington NY, Architect: A J Manning, Restoration Architect: Stephen Tilly
The Tiffany Reading Room; Architect: A J Manning; Restoration Architect: Stephen Tilly. Photo by Peter Aaron/www.ottoarchive.com

A little more than three years have passed since the unveiling of the restored Tiffany Reading Room, the peaceful sanctuary tucked within Irvington Town Hall. If, today, you were to stop by the room on any given weekday, you might come upon someone reading, in quiet study, or even meditating. You might walk in on a weekly village department meeting, or join members of a book club or local task force committee gathered some evening around one of the massive oak tables.

All of which is, in a sense, amazing, as the Reading Room is one of only a handful of intact Louis Comfort Tiffany-designed interiors left in the country. And, yet, it is perfectly in keeping with the original mandate behind the room’s creation.

Irvington’s Mental and Moral Improvement Society, like so many like-minded groups in vogue in late-nineteenth-century America, sought to elevate the character of its citizenry by promoting education, here in the form of a free circulating library within the Atheneum, built on Main Street by the Society in 1869. By the late 1890s, when the growing village needed a building to house its government offices, the Society donated the property with the proviso that a reading room remain on site and open to the public in the new Town Hall.

And what a reading room! Helen Gould, daughter of railroad tycoon Jay Gould, contributed $10,000 to commission none other than Louis Comfort Tiffany to design the space.

Tiffany, already world-renowned, had previously collaborated with Helen on the Gould Memorial Library she had built as a memorial to her father on the University Heights campus of New York University. Plus he had local ties: his father, Charles, founder of Tiffany & Company, owned an estate in what is now Matthiessen Park and served as a trustee on the board of the Improvement Society.

Beyond his designs for the very wealthy, Louis Comfort Tiffany, advocating art for all, pursued other, more commercial ventures. His studio, glassworks, and metal foundries in Corona, Queens, produced an astonishing range of products—lamps, chandeliers, decorative objects—that were within reach of those of more modest means. But Helen Gould’s commission gave him the freedom to design and realize a complete interior, from the furniture to the light fixtures to the tile mosaics to the green glaze on the plaster walls. And this interior would be open to all. In perpetuity.

Chris Mitchell, who co-chaired the original committee formed to restore the room, sums up its magic: “In no other space, except perhaps when I visited Wingspread, a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Racine, Wisconsin, do I feel the unity of an artist’s vision. It’s not just the mosaics or the clock or the lamps—it’s the room in its entirety.“

The painstaking restoration project was not without its challenges—and discoveries.

The committee chose to rehab, not replace, the original oak-framed windows. In removing the bronze sash lifts, Construction Manager Ben Branch noticed evidence of a painted faux-grain finish beneath. Replicating the finish has transformed the modest pine sashes to the look of a more expensive wood.

Tiffany’s innovations in glass manufacture can be seen in his wonderfully opalescent “turtleback” lantern sconces, which gleam green and golden when lit. The placement of the sconces was confirmed; the fixtures rewired. Village resident Barbara Denyer remembered a long-dismantled metal hoop chandelier from which hung more of these lanterns. The chandelier was not located.

No photos or design sketches survive. As Mr. Mitchell remembers, it was left to the committee and architect Stephen Tilley to decide, “How many lights had there been? How big was the hoop and how far down had it hung? We settled on eight and Barbara actually crafted a very realistic replica that Steve Tilley could jury rig from the ceiling so it could be properly positioned and a bronze fixture fabricated by Aurora Lamp Works in Brooklyn.”

The shimmering bands of glass mosaic tiles in saturated blues, greens, and aquas mimic brushstrokes of color and echo the sky and the waters of the Hudson. Not surprisingly, Tiffany first trained as a painter, including study with Irvington’s Samuel Colman. Although the tiles were in remarkably good shape, a dozen or so were missing. The committee was able to secure original replacements from the collection of a private foundation.

Another serendipitous find: for much of the time the Irvington Public Library was located in Town Hall, the sumptuous Japanese-inspired quarter-sawn oak pocket doors remained within their wall compartments. This preserved the luster and color of the original finish, which provided the template for the other woodwork.

And then there are the inscriptions, which positively thunder their edifying aphorisms down from the massive beams in bold, gold, carved-and-stippled Gothic letters: “Knowledge is power.” “Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.” We may never know who chose these quotations and by what common thread they hang together.

The first Tiffany Reading Room committee was formed to preserve and restore the space; a new committee, chaired by Anne Goldfield Rehm, is now devoted to the room’s use and maintenance.
An original portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany now graces the bookshelves, donated by Michael Burlingham, a Tiffany descendant and former Irvington resident who was an early advocate of the restoration. Tours of the room will once again be part of the June Path Through History weekend celebration. The room has also been designated as a stop on the proposed Tiffany Trail, a self-guided tour of New York State sites featuring Tiffany designs.

Tiffany’s Art Nouveau lamps may have gone in and out of fashion, but there endures a simplicity and a timelessness to his Reading Room design. Stop in for 15 minutes the next time you’re running errands in the village; the tranquility will restore you. Small groups interested in reserving the room for meetings can contact Rosemarie Gatzek, Director of the Irvington Public Library at: irvdirector@wlsmail.org

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