A Tiffany Gem, Restored to Glory

First published on The New York Times, December 21, 2012. Read the original here.

IRVINGTON, N.Y. — Painted in gold leaf, the words “Knowledge is Power” adorn the entrance to the reading room in the Town Hall of Irvington. The lettering is elaborate, the phrase itself like an incantation. As a child, I read it nearly every day as I entered the library. The words seemed to promise something the room did not deliver, something more than institutional lighting and faded encyclopedias.

The room contained other hints of forgotten grandeur: the swirling blue glass mosaics that surrounded the windows, the gilded quotations on the ceiling beams (cousins to the one above the door, but dust-covered and dull). Daydreaming, I’d make up stories about the room involving heiresses, artists and priceless antiques. I had no way of knowing that I wasn’t far off; the reading room had a secret, or perhaps I should say the reading room was a secret, forgotten by the world.

“I wasn’t aware of the room when I moved here,” said Michael John Burlingham, a great-grandson of its famous designer,Louis Comfort Tiffany. Mr. Burlingham had come to Irvington to research a book about Tiffany. He knew that Tiffany had begun visiting Irvington in 1863, when Tiffany’s father purchased a summer home there, but that was all. By the time older residents told Mr. Burlingham about the room, the unusual circumstances surrounding its creation had left it in a state of limbo.

In 1892, a group called the Mental and Moral Improvement Society donated the land for the town hall to the village, but with one condition: that the village maintain a free reading room in the hall. Helen Gould, the daughter of Jay Gould, the railroad magnate, donated $10,000 to have the reading room designed and decorated by Tiffany.

In the century that followed, Irvington expanded rapidly. By the late 1990s, it was clear that the library would have to move to a new, larger building. But the conditions of the original gift meant that the Tiffany room would have to stay in the town hall. By then, the room was in poor condition and used for storage.

Hoping to inspire a restoration, Mr. Burlingham wrote a letter to the town newspaper in 2004, saying “I can count on the fingers of one hand Louis Tiffany’s intact interiors: the Veteran’s Room of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York, theMark Twain House in Hartford, the Ayer Mansion in Boston and the reading room in Irvington’s Town Hall.”

In response, Irvington residents formed the Tiffany Room Committee and hired a local architect, Stephen Tilly, who had previously restored the Tiffany-designed interior of Congregation Shearith Israel’s Beaux-Arts sanctuary on Central Park West. Tilly and his building conservator, Mary A. Jablonski, found little documentation of the original room. “We had no plans, we had really no pictures. We had a few fragments of a paper trail. But we had the room.”

The room was in bad shape. It was not just in need of fresh plaster and paint; many of the furnishings, including more than a dozen handcrafted Tiffany turtleback lanterns, were in deep storage. The clock, a signature Tiffany piece of glass mosaic work done in a stunning, watery palette, no longer functioned. The mosaics were missing tiles. The chandelier had disappeared, and no one had a clue as to what it looked like.

Together, Mr. Tilly and the committee interviewed residents, searched photo archives, and called upon the Irvington Historical Society and curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barbara Denyer, a local artist and a committee member, designed a new chandelier.

The village contributed $75,000 toward the renovation. The remainder of the approximately $280,000 cost came from private donations by Irvington residents and local businesses. Two years of restoration turned to three, which turned to five, which turned to eight, but the committee kept going.

The fruits of all the work were finally made public on Sunday, Dec. 9, when the Tiffany Room officially reopened. What had once seemed like a cramped classroom was revealed to be a beautiful, almost meditative space. The restored mosaics suggest the nearby Hudson River, while tables and chairs designed by Tiffany Studios give the room a sense of gravitas. Most stunning are the handcrafted lanterns in the newly minted chandelier and restored wall sconces. The room blends Tiffany’s Arts and Crafts background with his mastery of Art Nouveau design, as well as the period’s penchant for Japanese decoration.

The library’s director, Pamela Strachan, says she plans to use the Tiffany Room for book club meetings and other programs. But for the most part, the room will be open for village residents to use as they see fit, exactly as the Mental and Moral Improvement Society intended a century ago. And though the room’s secrets have been revealed, it will still be a fine place to daydream.

The Tiffany reading room is located in Irvington Town Hall, 85 Main Street, Irvington, N.Y. For more information:irvingtonlibrary.org/tiffany.htm or (914) 591-7840.