Celebrating the Woolworth Building’s Centennial
By EVE M. KAHN
Published: March 28, 2013
A HUNDRED YEARS LATER
Just in time for this spring’s centennial of the Woolworth Building in Manhattan, descendants of its architect, Cass Gilbert, put a commemorative Tiffany silver bowl on the market. The heirloom, which weighs about 15 pounds, was the retail tycoon Frank W. Woolworth’s gift to Gilbert at an opening gala for the 57-story terra-cotta skyscraper.
On March 3 the Skinner auction house in Boston sold the bowl for about $42,000 to the New-York Historical Society, and it is already on view in the society’s lobby. The lot, which was expected to bring up to $50,000, included a 1913 book about the gala, with a menu recording servings of celery knob and Cotuit oysters.
Tiffany silversmiths molded Gothic-inspired tracery around the bowl’s crenelated rim and engraved a silhouette of the ziggurat building on the base.
“It is stunningly beautiful and really just a marvelous representation of a client’s high regard for his architect,” Gail Fenske, the author of “The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York” (University of Chicago Press), said in a phone interview.
Ms. Fenske is a curator of an exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan called “The Woolworth Building @ 100” (through July 14); the two other curators are Susan Tunick, the president of the Friends of Terra Cotta, and Carol Willis, the director of the Skyscraper Museum. (All three will be participating in public programs for Woolworth Week, starting April 22.) The Skyscraper Museum had hoped to borrow the bowl from the Gilbert family, just as the consignment to Skinner was under way. Ms. Fenske last glimpsed the piece at 1988 celebrations of the building’s 75th birthday.
“I’m looking forward to seeing it again,” she said.
The Skyscraper Museum is showing chunks of the architectural ornament that Tiffany artisans sculptured in miniature on the bowl as well as images of the Staten Island terra-cotta factory workers in action.
The exhibition also examines the tight bond between architect and patron. They took vacations together; one photo shows a uniformed porter pushing Woolworth and Gilbert around Palm Beach, Fla., in a wicker carriage.
Gilbert outfitted the Manhattan building with a swimming pool, a fireproof vault for valuables and display space for Woolworth’s collection of Napoleon memorabilia. In the lobby one terra-cotta bracket portrays Gilbert clutching a model of the tower. Another depicts Woolworth, counting coins.
A GILDED AGE TROVE
Gilded Age collectors liked to buy in bulk, especially in France. Dealers there funneled entire palace rooms to Manhattan tycoons like Henry Clay Frick and J. P. Morgan.
One of the most versatile suppliers was Georges Hoentschel (pronounced HENT-shull). His Paris showrooms exported items from faucets to priests’ vestments and murals of monkeys. He also designed Art Nouveau furniture and ceramics and fostered a circle of like-minded artisans, working in matte finishes and tentacled forms.
His range of tastes and interests and his charisma persuaded Morgan to acquire Hoentschel material for the Met, despite some questionable provenances and patches of serious damage. An exhibition about the dealer’s inventory and connoisseurship, “Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” opens April 4 at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan.
The wall texts and the catalog (from Yale University Press) trace Hoentschel’s career from teenage apprenticeship with an upholsterer in the 1860s through a 1910s heyday amid celebrated friends and clients including Rothschilds, Russian and Greek royalty, Diaghilev, Proust and Sarah Bernhardt. Hoentschel supervised hundreds of staff members, reproducing and adapting antiques for interiors and dreaming up avant-garde ideas.
“The farther these projects progress, the more confident I am that these bold enterprises will succeed,” he wrote to a friend in the 1890s.
The exhibition’s curatorial team, including Deborah L. Krohn, Ulrich Leben and Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, describes Hoentschel as blond, dashing and generous. “He gave me the run of his ateliers, let me have my pick of his fabrics, tapestries and carpets,” the aesthete Robert de Montesquiou wrote in his 1920s memoir. Hoentschel also attracted more conservative patrons, joining elite clubs in the yachting and horse-racing realms.
The Met has kept much of its Hoentschel collection in storage. French objects in better condition, and with stronger documentation, occupy the museum’s labyrinthine Wrightsman Galleries. The Bard Center is evoking Hoentschel’s Paris showrooms and booths at international expos, stocked floor to ceiling with armchairs, paintings, tapestries, columns, door frames, hardware, brackets and balusters.
During a recent Bard Center exhibition preview half a dozen side tables had just been delivered. Gilded legs ending in hooves, paws and talons were peeking out of crates. Blowups of black-and-white period photos showed how Hoentschel displayed his wares, and the actual wares were being installed nearby.
“Morgan was taken in by how extraordinary they all looked together,” Ms. Krohn said. She pulled out a sinuous fragment of a harp frame that Hoentschel acquired somewhere along the line as inspiration for his carvers. “He must have been a big pack rat,” she said.
Chips and even missing statue limbs and heads are evident in the Bard Center galleries, and the original functions of some objects are still being researched. A walnut urn has an ill-fitting lid that may have been removed from a porcelain vase now lost. A rough-edged garden scene with Chinese courtiers may have served as a side panel on an 18th-century French sedan chair, used by porters to carry around the wealthy.
American robber barons developed a taste for dismantled sedan chairs.
“Their reuse in collectors’ homes could range from showcases for knickknacks to telephone booths,” the Bard Center historian Katrina London writes in the catalog.
The curators are devoting cases to Art Nouveau ceramics, by Hoentschel and his protégés, that evoke swirling sea foam. Their works can also be found now at Manhattan specialty dealers including the Macklowe Gallery, Lillian Nassau and Jason Jacques.
From April 5 to 25 Mr. Jacques is displaying about 20 vessels from Hoentschel’s circle, with four- and five-figure prices. The gallery has given them memorable titles, like “antique alien womb” and “devil’s seed pod.”