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Swan Room at Maymont Mansion by Dale Quarterman (Maymont Foundation)
Nothing captures the essence of the 19th-century American Renaissance more than the palatial homes that showcased the opulent tastes of the Gilded Age and served as highly public statements of their owners’ wealth and status—no matter how recently either might have been acquired. The period also encompassed other diverse art movements, such as aestheticism, perhaps best known by its association with Oscar Wilde and the adage “art for art’s sake.” Heidi Nasstrom, adjunct professor and interim director of the Smithsonian’s MA program in the History of Decorative Arts, highlights the interiors of homes designed to impress through high-ceilinged stately rooms accented with tapestries, plush draperies, and dazzling chandeliers.
These palatial residences in New York, Newport, and the Hamptons were often designed for extravagant entertaining, with parties that extended to the outdoors. As a result, landscape designers were equally as elaborate with their creations. Jane and Ralph Whitehead, for example, developed artistic environs so naturalistic they blended seamlessly with local settings. Landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, working with architect Daniel Burnham, created a stunning “White City” in the Roman classical style for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Their work influenced the birth of the City Beautiful movement responsible for the neoclassical transformation of many American cities, notably including Washington, D.C.
Though many interiors of Gilded Age mansions were created in the spirit of French palaces or English castles, the aesthetic movement offered equally sumptuous expressions in design. Take a look at museum installations of some of the rooms and furniture of the brownstone mansion just off Fifth Avenue that belonged to Arabella “Belle” Yarrington Worsham, mistress and later wife of C&O Railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington. In 1881, Huntington gave her an unlimited budget to hire the German émigré cabinetmaker-decorator George Alfred Schastey to expand and redecorate the entire residence, and the results are a floor-to-ceiling display of aesthetic-style décor and furnishings.
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