Saturday, August 18, 2012

From Lobby to Peak - Halls

***From Lobby to Peak - a series of illustrated articles in Our Continent - by Donald G. Mitchell - describing  the New York City  apartment of Louis Comfort Tiffany - progressing from room to room - Mitchell describes the essence of Tiffany's style - part three of eleven - published  March 1, 1882***

THERE is no adornment of a hall like breadth. Narrowness makes waste of temper and waste of bric-a-brac. The cunningest lover of the "Lilies" of either sex wants to spreadand the common-sense man wants free and full room to put on his dreadnaught without rapping his knuckles against the wainscot.

The old school of builders did indeed presume that narrow houses and narrow lots compelled narrow halls, but the ingenuity of modern architects and a little bending of old habits have wrought a relaxation of this law of compulsion,
and given relief from the pinch of a five-foot entrance way. Yet architectural ingenuity has very much more to accomplish still in this direction, and what it may or may not do affords fruitful topic which we may chance upon some other day : now we take up our trail from the cosy little lobby of an apartment house where we lingered a half hour last week.

The reader, who has not lost sight of the ground-plan, will perceive that space has been stolen from adjoining rooms to give breadth to hall; no wiser theft could have been made. There is room for a shaking of hands and for a toss of circulars. Mistress and maid and a quartette(4) of children can group there, in waiting for the rumble of the elevator, with verge***not 1c but 2a*** and space for a last tying of the mufflers and a last dusting of the frills.

In the subdued light of it (coming through the lobby and from over the portiere which separates it from the parlor), we catch glimpse of a half-open door, revealing the blaze of the library fire - of another door opening upon the dining-room, and of a recess from which a corridor leads away through the butler's pantry to the regions governed by the cook. Thus the position is central, as it should be, and dominates the dwelling.

We spoke of the subdued light; as a rule, prescribed by the economics of space, none but borrowed light can come to "the hall" of a range of apartments, nor indeed is full blaze of
it desirable. We have here a little all-sufficient, half-grayish, half-golden dawn coming through the olive-green lights of the lobby, and - we know not what - vitreous bit of opalescence that shows in the flank of the air-shaft. It is not a light that entreats us to the study of minute figures, nor is such needed in any hall. We can make out the pointing of the  hands upon the old hall clock if there be one present (and it is a capital "present''). We can catch the shimmer of the metal work upon the breach of a Moorish gun, if one hangs athwart the hall, and a general, or an artist, or an archaeologist, or a sportsman, or even an esthete could not object to a good group of historic weapons. But whether there would be good light for delicate paintings or for engravings is quite another question; certainly no such things should be shown under conditions that would make the study of them a weariness, and this is good ruling for corridors, or halls, or libraries. What is worth seeing closely is worth the light to see it by.

An old family portrait or two, with homely, strong lines in them, might stand well in the half-dimness of a hall, with a historic twilight upon them by day; and by night (with some kindly fixture of upper lights) taking on an aureole of welcoming smiles.

Again, an old bit of tapestry - Flemish or other - is not a bad thing for the half-dimness of a hall: not stretched straight, as if we were eager to make the very most of it, but taking easy folds into which figures of stalwart falconers, and trees, and cavaliers shall break and break out again in pretty mystic bewilderment of change. Then this tapestry (like an arras of old) may hide things that would break upon the artistic harmonies of the hall. It may overhang and conceal a slight recess where the everyday man (though he were a Bunthorne) must keep his galoshes, and his canes, and his mackintosh, and his ulster.

And what, pray, should he under foot in our hall, and what floor have we? That floor is best of all which by its smoothness, and evenness, and soundness, and lowness of tone as compared with all wall surfaces makes us straightway forget what manner of floor it is. Neither our eye or thought should seek it or pursue it. If there are geometries in it they should not be so cogent as to tempt us to work out their puzzles; and it is no place for perspectives, even of a cube
of color. A hall mat or rug too that tells of warmth and softness is telling about the best story that it can possibly tell.

Slippery floors again (though of rarest hard woods) and floors waxed and polished to the last degree of smoothness, if they confront us in the entrance hall, are an abomination. No man of proper sedateness and no woman of assured domesticity but dreads setting foot upon paths that are slippery.

A good old oaken settle is not a bad thing for halls, with its sheer severities of paneled back and its sturdy plank footing; not easy to be sure; we do not want any cushioned luxuries in a hallway; it is rather a good place to receive "bores," if we must receive them at all, and an oaken settle of oldish and
homely rectangular does not tempt a long stay. The same may he said of overwrought oaken chairs with great bulges of uneasy and recreant carving; the hall is a good place for such, except they be inhibited by too palpable a non-agreement with other fixtures. But there is always this good in a hall, that it takes it "jumble" of things more justly and carries them more easily than other rooms.

That very iron-bound chest which the artist has included in the "hall-wares" that flank our type may not lie unseemly ; and if with a lining of cedar or camphor wood will be a very convenient lodging-place for a lap-robe, a fur cap, a pair of driving gauntlets***gloves***, a furred foot-muff; and a daintily-wrought Manilla mat stretched upon it may make it a fairish seat for those in waiting.   

There is a hint of ceramics too in this jumble of hall-wares; these in such place should not certainly be over-fine; they should he equal to bearing hard raps; bigness and angularities will not discredit them here; niceties are overlooked, Lambeth and Japan may stand "check by jowl." Then for the night lights there is many a happy device to supplant the old central and hideous gas chandelier (with one poor jet, out of its six or ten, singing its lonely tale of economies). Possibly the lamp-makers may find a hint in that old three-footed earthen candelabra, with its ten spouts for flame, which is pictured here amongst other wares and which came from the Kabyle country of Algiers, with memories of Egypt upon it. Another and better hint may come from the Venetian side-light with its daintily-fashioned support and its pretty (but not easily dusted) tendrils of iron.    Then above is good solid type of an Oriental lantern that has carried blaze in the Japanese city of Tokyo. But in the hall, with which we have to do at present (and from which we shall look in next week upon an "Early Breakfast" in the adjoining Dining Room), there is no night light, save only the altar-like flame upon its tripod, which blazes in our first picture and our first paper, with its title dedication "Ad Lorem."

Donald G. Mitchell was a close friend of Tiffany's. Our Continent was a new magazine covering history, literature, science and art. Click HERE to view all earlier posts on Tiffany's Bella penthouse apartment.


  1. Some say Elsie De Wolfe was the first professional decorator as we know the vocation. But would that title go instead to Louis Comfort Tiffany?

  2. Don't the Herter Brothers beat him out by a few years?

  3. Everything I've ever read groups them in the pioneer category.

  4. TDC --

    To the best of my knowledge, Lady Mendl was the first *female* professional interior decorator. And it could be argued -- without much trouble -- that she did more to set the future course of the profession than any of her predecessors.

    The Herter Brothers, L C. Tiffany, Lockwood de Forest, Stanford White -- they were all either making, or contracting out, or buying the materials they used for interiors. I don't know enough about about EdW's business model to compare/contrast her with any of her predecessors. (Though I am curious at just how great her mark-ups were for Frick!)

    P.S. I have to repent what I said above about the Herter Brothers, as I've belatedly remembered that Leon Marcotte and Ringuet-Leprince were doing what amounted to "whole house interiors" in New York as early as the mid-1850s. (These were the years when Duncan Phyfe's handiwork was being banished to the attics of Washington Square in favor of something more "fashionable.")