America’s first interior designer, Elsie de Wolfe, was best known for decorating the abodes of many notable clients—including Oscar Wilde, Condé Nast, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to name a few—but one of her very own homes, which still exists today, was an integral part of her career.
The dwelling in question is the Washington Irving House, which is located at Irving Place and East 17th Street and was built in 1845. It served as the home of de Wolfe and her partner, literary agent Elisabeth Marbury, from 1897 to 1907.
The house was named after writer Washington Irving, who also owned a dwelling in Tarrytown, New York—known as Sunnyside—which is now a historic house museum. Oddly enough, it’s believed that Irving never lived here, despite the home’s name. De Wolfe’s most notable guests at this abode included Stanford White, Ethel Barrymore, and Oscar Wilde.
This home, says Colin Fanning, a PhD candidate in design history at the Bard Graduate Center, was “an early laboratory where de Wolfe began to work out some of the ideas and design habits that would characterize her later, more mature work.” This includes “light paint colors, painted French furniture, chintz fabrics, and a less-cluttered arrangement of furniture and decorative objects. This was the first de Wolfe residence that was used as a sort of “platform for building [her] professional image and attracting new clientele,” adds Fanning.
When de Wolfe moved into the home, it was decorated in “high Victorian style,” says Hutton Wilkinson, interior designer and president of the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation. She would later swap these furnishings out for Louis XVI-style decor instead, after becoming a Francophile while living in Paris and working as an actress. “Instead of arranging her rooms for ostentation, she arranged the furniture for conversation,” he adds.
The dwelling boasted marble columns that the designer was “crazy about” and kept, as they were the only redeeming feature of the house, in her mind, says Wilkinson. Additionally, a fabric sofa that would later end up in the designer’s home in France was originally part of the entry hall of the Washington Irving House.
Above all, says Fanning, “the Washington Irving House was the place where [Elsie de Wolfe] realized she could put her love of decorating and her strong design opinions to work as a real career—one that could keep her in the sorts of fashionable company and tastemaking roles she enjoyed from her earlier theatrical pursuits.”
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