Herter Brothers

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CHRISTIAN HERTER’S SWAN SONG WAS ONE OF THE MOST EXTRAVAGANT ARCHITECTURAL COMMISSIONS IN AMERICA HISTORY: THE W.H. VANDERBILT RESIDENCE ON FIFTH AVENUE.

Woodlands was demolished in 1940. All that remains is the lady’s reception room, preserved and recently restored at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum. To enter it—indeed, to encounter any of Herter’s best custom cabinetwork—is to imagine entire areas of traditional craft reborn through patronage and design, sneering at the possibilities defined by mass markets and machines. In the words of the Victorian-art critic Clarence Cook, whose The House Beautiful (1878) has been described by the scholar Kenneth Ames as a “masterpiece of snobbery and condescension": “We must remember, too, that rich buyers do not want their orders repeated for other customers ... do [not] want what . . . other people have.”

 

Christian Herter’s swan song was one of the boldest and most extravagant architectural commissions in American history, the residence William H. Vanderbilt undertook to build at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street in 1879. This was Herter’s largest commission and one of the few in which the firm exercised control over both interior and exterior features. Herter’s original concept called for an enormous multicolor Renaissance box—the gridlike cabinet writ large —made of alternating bands of red and black marble and cream-colored Ohio sandstone. The client opted for a monochromatic exterior of Connecticut brownstone but let the designer’s imagination run free inside. The two years of construction employed more than six hundred workmen, including two hundred and fifty foreign wood sculptors, whose presence helped revitalize an art that had been dying in New York for twenty years.

 

Herter Brothers produced its most startling, unique, and eccentric designs for the Vanderbilt Mansion—the spirit of triumph and conquest rippled through every room—but the climax was the library’s magnificent center table, which Frelinghuysen describes as “a piece of sculpture ... a monument to Vanderbilt himself,” “imperial” and “royalist,” a singular example of autobiographical furniture: “My life as a table.” Made of rosewood and walnut with mother-of-pearl, satinwood, and brass details, the table is six feet long, four feet wide, and lavishly carved and finished, with patterns echoed by the bookcase, mantelpiece, and fixed woodwork of the room. At each end float mother-of-pearl globes, and between them stretches a celestial field whose stars illustrate the order of the heavens in the Northern Hemisphere on the day of Vanderbilt’s birth!

Christian Herter retired from Herter Brothers early in 1883 and died of consumption before the year was out. The firm carried on for another twenty years still enjoying—if no longer monopolizing—an elite patronage. Herter Brothers’ rare convergence of skillful artisanry, gifted design, and marketing élan finally ran out of steam in 1905, when the firm closed its doors forever. But in its great days the company had developed a national following wholly unprecedented by any American furniture maker or design firm. Its standard became the standard against which “success” is still measured in the capricious world of fashion.