April 18, 2017

The French Embassy is Restoring the Venetian Room in the Former Payne Whitney Mansion

One of Stanford White's most original creations, the Venetian Room is a beautiful vestige and rare example of the Gilded Age period in New York. Completed in 1906, it is also the very last creation of the well-known architect.

by New York Spaces

The Venetian Room
The Venetian Room.
The Venetian Room
Photograph by Alain Licari.

NYS: We are so excited the French Embassy is set on renovating the Venetian Room, located within the 1902 Gilded Age Payne Whitney Mansion! When will you start working on it and how long do you expect the project to take?

Thomas Michelon, Deputy Cultural Counselor at the French Embassy: We're very excited as well! We've been raising funds for the renovation of the Venetian Room, located within the Payne Whitney mansion (today home to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy) for months. The Payne Whitney mansion was commissioned and built in 1902 as a wedding gift from Oliver Hazard Payne to his nephew, the financier, philanthropist and sportsman, Payne Whitney, and his new wife, Helen Hay.

In 1948, four years after Helen Hay Whitney's death, the Venetian room was dismantled, and a year later the mansion was sold. The pieces from the room remained in storage until 1997, when Mrs. John Hay Whitney donated them to the French-American Foundation.

The Venetian Room
The Venetian Room.

The Foundation provided the financial support necessary for the reinstallation of the room.

The critical condition of the room, however, has made the conservation project a priority to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. We are unsure yet as to when the restoration will be complete. The entire project is estimated to last four to five months; we hope it will be finished by September, but it should be done by the end of the year 2017 at the latest.

NYS: How would you describe the Venetian Room?

Thomas Michelon: The stunning parlor is a true gem, with walls of mirrored panels and a cornice of metal lattice entwined with beautiful porcelain flowers and 18th-century European furnishings. One of Stanford White's most original creations, the Venetian Room is a beautiful vestige and rare example of the Gilded Age period in New York. Completed in 1906, it is also the very last creation of the well-known architect.

Named by Helen Hay Whitney, the Venetian Room was created as a reception room and is located just off the mansion's main entrance rotunda.

The Venetian Room
The Venetian Room.

NYS: What will the renovation consist of? As one of the rare examples of the great Gilded Age period in New York, and also, as one of Stanford White's last creations, how will you preserve the integrity of the Venetian Room while updating it?

Thomas Michelon: Most of the room's decorative design lies in its ornamentation, so the renovation will consist, in the first of three phases, of the general preservation of these elements, and will also include casting of ornamentation with gilded and painted surfaces, which are currently showing great fragility.

The second and third phases, specifically, will focus on cleaning, meaning the proper removal of dust and soot that has built up over the years. These phases will allow for the decorative elements, including its bronze decorative objects, porcelain pieces, and painted metal to shine as they once did.

NYS: How did you find the correct professional conservator to outline a plan and detail how to preserve the space?

Thomas Michelon: The Cultural Services of the French Embassy commissioned initial analyses and a report from Pascale Patris, Conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She is now a member of the Scientific Committee for the Venetian Room renovation project.

NYS: What scientific research was done to identify the original techniques the decorative elements were created with, in order to possibly replicate them?

Thomas Michelon: A thorough scientific report was made by Pascale Patris, Conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and member of the Scientific Committee for the Venetian Room renovation project, to help evaluate the room's potential for restoration. Here are some excerpts of the report displaying scientific portions of the analysis:

The Venetian Room
The Venetian Room.

Cross-section examination under UV light reveals a top coating of resin/varnish applied over the gilt finish. Scientific analyses were undertaken to identify the binder which was added to give the "Staff", an artificial composite material, its malleability. All ornamental elements of the paneling are cast reproductions made of staff, an artificial composite material. Sample of such material was examined instrumentally by a SEM (scanning electron microscope) and topographic images were closely examined. In the SEM image the textural characteristic of the mixture is not uniform in composition and very porous, leading Mrs. Patris to advise us not to use any water-based materials during conservation treatment.

Analysis of a loose sample of the salt efflorescence revealed green particles. The green pigments were identified as a chemical formation that simulates natural bronze oxidation color. Observation of archival images is showing the actual green patina on the foliage in the crates before the reinstallation of 1997.

NYS: What will the approach to conservation of the Venetian room consist of?

The Venetian Room
The Venetian Room.

Thomas Michelon: We will start with an overall consolidation of the different materials and surfaces composing the room, as well as the stabilization of ongoing losses. This preliminary process will be completed prior to any further treatment. We will then clean the entire room and cornice with proper removal of dust and environmental deposit coating all the decorative elements in the room and the cornice. We will finish with a cleaning treatment of the decorative objects, which are an integral part of the room and which include bronze and porcelain elements, and painted metal.

NYS: What do you expect to see once the conservation efforts have been applied?

Thomas Michelon: We hope for the conservation to bring out the superior quality and elegance of the room, as well as the finely made decorative elements and the remarkable original craftsmanship.

NYS: Why was the Venetian Room created in the first place? What was its purpose at the time?

Thomas Michelon: The Venetian Room was a tribute to Helen Hay Whitney's love for Italy, and intended as a reception room decorated in the Italian Renaissance style. The mirrors lining the walls of the room clearly evoke the exquisite Venetian glass Murano mirrors.

The Venetian Room
The Venetian Room.

NYS: Can you tell us a bit about the history of the Payne Whitney Mansion?

Thomas Michelon: As mentioned previously, the mansion was a wedding gift from Oliver Hazard Payne, a former treasurer of Standard Oil Company, to his nephew, financier, philanthropist and sportsman, Payne Whitney, and wife, Helen Hay, in 1902.

Between 1902 and 1906, the well-known Gilded Age architect Stanford White of the firm McKim, Mead and White designed and oversaw construction of the mansion.

White had travelled to Europe ten years prior and was deeply inspired by the architecture of the continent. He chose to design the Whitneys' home in the style of the Italian Renaissance, with a fantasy Venetian room for the Italy-loving Helen Hay Whitney.

Two French artisanal companies (Allard & Fils and Lyon's JC) participated in the construction of the home, while White imported the most precious construction materials from Europe, including stone from France and marble from Italy. The Whitney family also travelled to Europe to procure furniture and art for the home in 1905. White had selected works from galleries and auction houses in France, Italy, and England, and the Whitney family acquired several exceptional pieces.

Guillaume Chatel
Photograph by Guillaume Chatel.

Of outstanding note is the statue "Young Archer," purchased from a London gallery. In 1997, the statue was authenticated as an original work of Michelangelo—his only sculpture on American soil.

The Payne Whitney mansion, which hosts the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, was completed in 1909 by McKim, Mead and White and Helen lived in the mansion until her death in 1944. The French government purchased the mansion in April 1952, and it has since served as the home of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.

NYS: How can New Yorkers help preserve this fantasy room? Will they be able to visit it once it has been conserved?

Thomas Michelon: This is one of the most beautiful Gilded Age treasures of New York, and our goal is to raise enough funds to restore its beauty and enhance its durability in order to preserve a unique piece of New York City's cultural heritage.

We're looking for the support of dedicated organizations to help us achieve this ambitious project and are open

The Venetian Room
The Venetian Room; Photograph by Alain Licari.

to opportunities to develop new partnerships. We would also welcome any individual contributions to the renovation of this remarkable Venetian Room.

With regards to individual contributions, we have organized a donation project: For a tax-deductible contribution of $500, donors will be able to adopt a single flower among the floral ornaments of the room, and will also receive a limited-edition professional photographic print of the chosen flower. For a tax-deductible contribution of $5,000, donors will have the opportunity to adopt a full bouquet of 12 distinct flowers. All proceeds will serve to support the Venetian room restoration project.

To make a donation, please contact Caite Panzer, Director of Development: caite.panzer@diplomatie.gouv.fr. For more information on the Venetion Room, please click here.

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