Friday, April 29, 2011

The Lockwood De Forest House - No. 7 East 10th Street


When landscape painter Lockwood De Forest II married Meta Kemble in 1879, his love affair with things Indian and exotic was already well-established. That same year he had partnered with Louis Comfort Tiffany to form the interior decorating firm of Associated Artists.

De Forest took his new bride on a nearly two-year honeymoon to India. While there he found the woodcarving studio of Muggunbhai Hutheesing who struggled to keep India’s traditional art forms from disappearing. While De Forest wanted to help preserve the Indian arts and crafts, he also recognized the financial opportunity of importing the ornate moldings and furniture for Associated Artists. As art historian Roberta Mayer put it, he recognized “a way to create beauty and make money at the same time.”

The colorful Lockwood De Forest
De Forest’s love affair for Indian decorative arts was manifested in the five-story home he built at 7 East 10th Street in 1887. Working with architect Van Campen Taylor, he created a residence which would have been nearly devoid of architectural interest had not it been slathered with lush Indian teakwood carving.


The double-doored entrance, on sidewalk level rather than above a traditional high stoop, was framed in intricate wood carvings and a deep wooden cornice projected over the brick fa├žade. However the second story oriel window, supported by four heavy brackets was the piece De resistance. An explosion of carved florals, animals and geometric designs, its dark teak color dramatically contrasted with the tan brick. The deep-relief carvings of the brackets were masterpieces of Indian art. A projecting, tiled roof finished the window.

It was a house that The New York Times said “attracts the attention of even the most careless passer-by, it is so wholly individual and unique—an artistic oasis in the dull desert of commonplace red brick and brownstone fronts.”

The interiors were even more lavish. The Times remarked that “Outside it has been obliged of necessity to concede something to its environment, even at the sacrifice of distinct and consistent individuality. Within, however, there have been no limitations…and the house is altogether Oriental.”

De Forest's parlor overflowed with Indian motifs -- a carved settee, teakwood archway and intricately carved bannisters.  De Forest's own landscape paintings hang on the walls -- photo American Decorative Arts Forum Northern California
In 1887 America was obsessed with things Asian. However the fashion limited itself almost exclusively to Japanese and Chinese decorative arts. The De Forest House was unique. “In all the United States there is not another house like this,” said The Times.

On the second floor, a huge landing opened onto the parlor on one side and the dining room on the other. The windows of the dining room were framed in intricate lattice-work and the ceiling was supported by carved teakwood beams forming squares in which were carved rosettes.

The ceiling of the parlor was stenciled brass with a carved frieze. Throughout the house were piles of Oriental rugs, chests and other carved furniture, porcelains and brass.

It was, as The House Beautiful would deem it in 1900, “the most Indian house in America.”

As Lockwood De Forest went about his business painting landscapes and decorating homes, Mrs. De Forest entertained. On December 2, 1903 she hosted a tea here for her debutante daughter two years later the house was the scene of a Christmas sale for the benefit of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Society women passed through the teakwood archways inspecting baskets, card, calendars, pottery and dolls.

Here writer Rudyard Kipling, whom the artist had met in India, stayed on at least one occasion.

In 1922 De Forest moved to Santa Barbara, leaving the exotic and unique house on East 10th Street forever. When the house was sold, much of the interior detailing was removed and sold at auction.

Using a $2.5 million gift from Edgar M. Bronfman, New York University purchased the house in 1994 for use as the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. A three-year restoration of both the interior and exterior was initiated by Helpern Associates.

Today the De Forest House remains the attention-grabber that it was over a century ago. The teakwood carvings are still crisp; having withstood the severity of New York City weather better than the eroding brownstone buildings around it.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

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