Back when the Park Avenue Armory served as the headquarters for New York State’s Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, it housed on its ground floor a massive, high-ceilinged room where retired soldiers could lounge with a brandy in one hand, a cigar in the other, and a spittoon by their sides. Today, the Veterans Room represents one of the extant intact interiors designed by Louis C. Tiffany and Co., Associated Artists — the collective spearheaded by the renowned decorative artist, just 31 and early into his glass-making when he received the prestigious commission in 1879. Joining him were architect Stanford White, interior designer Candace Wheeler, and painter Samuel Colman. Lavishly embellished with handsome woodwork, shimmering wallpaper, intricate iron fixtures, and Tiffany’s signature stained glass windows, the Veterans Room was quite the spot for an old gents’ club and, in the day, the envy of young militants barred from access.
The historic room now welcomes all: it reopened its doors this week to the public to reveal an impeccably restored and updated interior, the result of 14 months of research and work by Herzog & de Meuron. The Swiss architectural firm has since 2007 been working with Platt Byard Dovell White Architects to renovate the entire Armory building. The Veterans Room is the fourth finished room; the teams have 14 more to revitalize. While much of the general design, conceived by Tiffany, remains original, Herzog & de Meuron has infused the room with a contemporary spirit, slipping in modern touches.
On top of the wear and tear that ensue from years of smoky soirées and music festivals, a number of largely substandard alterations and restorations throughout the 20th century left the space in a disheveled state, buried under dust and dirt. Now, gleaming tiles of swirling shades of blue, each hand-pressed by Tiffany and adorning a massive, column-flanked fireplace, immediately capture your attention upon entry. Like much of the room’s details, they are iridescent, playing with light that streams through the artist’s colored glass mosaics in high-positioned windows. The entire space seems to shimmer as you walk around, an illusion heightened by the wallpaper, which features metallic stencil work of a Moorish design. Decades ago, when the old gaslights, attached to ceiling-hanging iron fixtures were lit, the glow they cast would have made the wallpaper appear to ripple — an effect many writers in the 1880s praised when they saw the room. A similar movement is achieved today with a smart electric upgrade: small LED lights below elegant prism glass pieces replace fire, refracting light in a way that mimics the subtle materiality of gas. As a whole, the room is ostentatiously ornate — a classic Gilded Age interior — but its luster prevents the many design elements from weighing it down.
The commission was an extremely important one: the veterans would have been, as Armory President Rebecca Robertson put it, the “Buffetts and Gates of that time.” It would have been an especially significant one for the younger artists, and the collective clearly embraced the serious task with enthusiasm.
“You can tell how much fun they had,” Robertson said. “You feel their hands in this room so well. You feel that collaboration in this room.”
Their design pitch would have seemed schizophrenic: the designers drew influences from Celtic, Egyptian, Moroccan, Persian, and Japanese art, among others. Dragons mingle with oriental motifs in a wooden panel that wraps around the room; a Greek or Roman-style painted frieze runs just below the ceiling, with alternating medallions and rectangles that recall triglyphs and metopes. Painted by George Yewell and Francis Miller, the work – which had to undergo thorough cleaning — reveals a chronological survey of international warfare. From Native Americans sparring on horseback to Assyrian, Japanese, and Mexican warriors equipped with various technically advanced weapons, all the way up to an image of a Colt revolver, the illustrations nod to the past activities of the men who once gazed upon them. Above the fireplace, framed by a zinc wallcovering, a massive painted stucco relief of an eagle fighting an aquatic beast parallels the theme of war.
“They were all about doing things that were innovative and different, and they were about taking risks,” Robertson said of the artists.
Considering all the included elements and drawn sources, the result is impressively harmonious, with all surfaces in dialogue with one another. Motifs that appear on the woodwork of the walls are echoed in painted details on the coffered ceiling, which itself has a metallic sheen. The wallpaper’s chain-link pattern recalls the latticework of wooden screens by a small balcony, which may have been used for musical performances back in the day. Wall panels fitted with armor-like plates reflect the same dull patina of the zinc work, which also covers the capitals of wooden columns flanking the fireplace.
When Herzog & de Meuron began renovation efforts, they had to painstakingly take apart the room, stripping it of many of its elements before reconstructing them.
“Herzog & de Meuron’s method throughout our building has been to delayer the room and sort of learn about it and feel its character … really feel the eclectic nature of the room before thinking about what interventions were appropriate,” Robertson said.
The team consulted old records to learn about the original designs, but the room itself also yielded traces of its history, initially thought to be lost. A remnant of the original wallpaper surfaced beneath a large painting, allowing the architects to recreate the same colors. The 19th-century designers would have used an eight-step process to create the wallpaper, first painting it before applying various layers of the metallic stencil work; Herzog & de Meuron replicated the pattern in a more time-efficient way, using computer modeling to apply the graphic print.
Other contemporary updates include curtains to replace lost textiles created by Wheeler. These new ones integrate seamlessly into the room: they layer blue velvet under an armor-like mesh of copper and a criss-cross overlay of leather strapping, reflecting the various latticework around the room while echoing the tint of Tiffany’s windows. Most of the furniture, too, had to be recreated and reupholstered; the latticework of benches lining the walls were largely broken, likely from years of veterans scuffing their heels on the seats.
The room will witness its share of festivities once more: the Armory is now using it as a contemporary salon to host intimate cultural events. It inaugurates its programming with the Artists Studio, a year-long series of contemporary performances curated by jazz musician Jason Moran who performed on the night the room opened. Moran’s series will reflect the room’s vision and eclectic mixture of styles, mostly pairing artists who may not typically come together and inviting them to experiment and develop new work. These performances may not be as rowdy as those the room once witnessed, but they will revitalize the space after years of lost glory. Cigars, however, are no longer permitted.
For more information about visiting the Park Avenue Armory’s Veterans Room and its other historic rooms (643 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) click here.
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