Two very different women, the socially striving Arabella Worsham and the retiring Laura Spelman Rockefeller, occupied the lavish Gilded Age dressing room that joined the period rooms in the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning in late 2015.
In 1877, Arabella Worsham, the Virginia-born mistress of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, bought the thirteen-year-old brownstone at 4 West 54th Street from William P. Williams. She embarked on a “gut renovation,” renovating each room in a different historical revival style, thereby transforming a simple brownstone into an Aesthetic masterpiece adhering to the decorating principle of: if much is good, more is better. George A. Schastey was Arabella’s decorator.
The Worsham-Rockefeller house was torn down in 1938; the priceless ground it stood on became MoMA’s beloved Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Three rooms of the mansion survived: the Moorish Smoking Room, at the Brooklyn Museum, the bedroom, now at the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, and the Dressing Room, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). All three rooms illustrate the exquisite craftsmanship of the Gilded Age.
The Met’s dressing room is small and functional; most of the furniture—closets, chests of drawers, vanity, washbasin, and mirrors—being built into or set against the walls. The furniture is made from satinwood, enhanced by purple-heart inlays or appliques. Wood dominates the diminutive space, but an intricately painted ceiling and trim, and ornate chandeliers, relieve its severity.
The inlays—some consisting of combs, hand mirrors and scissors—define the function of the room, as does the delicate dressing table topped by an equally elegant mirror. Putti, frolicking among strings of pearls, fill the frieze and illustrate Arabella’s passion for jewelry.
Arabella was always most secretive about how she had met Collis Huntington, the railroad mogul. During her tenancy at 4 West 54th Street Arabella was known as the “widowed Mrs. Worsham,” though most likely her marriage to Mr. Worsham was a pretense. Her so-called husband did not really die, but returned to Virginia, where he rejoined his legal wife.
In 1884, after Collis’s first wife died after a long struggle with cancer, he married Arabella. Henry Ward Beecher, whose fierce sermons stirred the North’s emancipatory fervor, officiated at the ceremony. The new Mrs. Huntington moved around the corner to Park Avenue to an even greater palace. Collis adopted Archer, Arabella’s young son. After Collis died, Arabella married Collis’s nephew Henry Huntington.
John D. Rockefeller Sr. bought 4 West 54th Street in 1884. His wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, had little use for Arabella’s ostentation. Service to her family, the Northern Baptist Church and education would define Laura’s life. In 1915, after his wife’s death, John Sr. closed his Manhattan home. By then his son John D. Rockefeller Jr. had built himself a much grander brownstone at 12 West 54th Street.
In 1938 both houses were razed. As noted, some of the rooms were donated to museums, and some of Schastey’s enormous fireguards constructed for 4 West 54th Street were moved to the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills. In an extremely sentimental gesture, the exterior bricks of 4 West 54th Street were reused to construct the Sleepy Hollow home now occupied by David Rockefeller Sr.
The disparate women who used the Met’s dressing room left their impact on America. Arabella collected great art and together with Henry Huntington founded the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanic Garden in San Marino, California. A few of Arabella’s great paintings ended up elsewhere. One of these, Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, ended up at the Met in New York in 1961.
The Rockefellers were more serious. To begin with they supported education. In 1882 they granted $250 to the nascent Atlanta Baptist Female Seminar, which educated African-American women. The basement school blossomed into Spelman College, dedicated to Laura Rockefeller and her abolitionist parents.
Both Laura and Arabella imbued their only male descendants with lofty principles. John D. Rockefeller Jr. spent his life developing modern philanthropy and judiciously distributing a large part of the immense wealth accumulated by his father. Archer M. Huntington founded numerous museums including the Hispanic Society of America and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.