My Visit to The Stettheimer at Museum of the City of New York

Even though I grew up in New York City, I was never able to visit the famed Stettheimer, the elaborate and sophisticated dollhouse and darling of the collection on permanent view at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY). The Stettheimer is one of the few examples of fine art and architecture in miniature from the early 20th century. Sometimes, even though you may live in New York, you don’t get to take advantage of all of the wonderful things to see and places to visit!

When I learned the MCNY was hosting “The Stettheimer Dollhouse: Up Close,” I knew I shouldn’t miss the chance to finally see the dollhouse I had only heard so much about and for so long. I now live just north of New York City, in Westchester County, and the trip into the City was quick, especially in the age of COVID-19: everything was either closed or scaled back to limited visitation.

I arrived at the museum, a stunning Georgian-Colonial revival by architect Joseph H. Friedlander and immediately headed to the second-floor exhibit. The dollhouse is usually kept in a corridor and now a new exhibit room to houses the dollhouse and collection of related artwork and artifacts, all never been seen before.

This exhibition celebrates the 75th anniversary the arrival of the dollhouse to the MCNY when it was donated by Ette Stettheimer, sister of its creator, Carrie, following her death in 1944.

Carrie Stettheimer was a New York City socialite during the 1920’s and 1930’s. She and her sisters, Ette and Florine, lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and frequently entertained guests, some of whom were legends in the literary and art world including Gertrude Stein, Albert Gleizes and Marcel Duchamps, well-known for bringing the modern art movement to the United States.

Carrie asked many of her friends to create works of art in miniature for her dollhouse which she spent 20 years creating, decorating and furnishing.

I was struck by just how much art actually filled the spaces under its roof. The 16-room dollhouse is much larger and more lavish than I had envisioned, only seeing photographs online. It is several feet wide and equally as tall and is set on a column base. The ceilings in the house are high which add to the structure’s grandeur and elegance.

The dollhouse design was inspired by the home where the Stettheimer sisters summered as children located in Tarrytown, New York, just 30 miles north of New York City. The overall aesthetic was considered “outrageously chic” for the time and had an eclectic mix of color, style and design reflecting the energy and personality of its creator and her illustrious friends.

The front opening dollhouse contains rooms which can be seen from all sides of the structure. Windows can be peered through from any angle with visibility to multiple adjoining rooms. The miniature’s façade with large imposing columns is framed and set on the wall; nearby, enlarged versions of the miniature artwork seen inside the house to complement the exhibition.

The dollhouse includes a grand ballroom, an impressive space with floor-to-ceiling arched doorways, flanked by tall carved sculptures leading to a salon featuring striped painted flooring (a de rigueur design choice in stately homes of the time), a mezzanine balcony above and a room filled with original modern art paintings and drawings.

I can only imagine that a real balcony must have existed in their Tarrytown home where musicians would be invited to perform while extravagant parties happened below.

The rooms on the lower level offer a snapshot on how the wealthy of the time lived including an ice box and iron stove in the kitchen, toilets and a bathtub (plumbing!), hand-painted implements in a cleaning closet, an elaborately prepared table in the dining room and working electric fixtures throughout.

Many of the rooms are filled with a playful and eclectic mix of graphic patterns with explosions of color, hallmarks of the Victorian era. In one of the upper floor bedrooms, an intricate peacock design runs throughout the décor including the carpet, upholstery, wallpaper and hand painted on the furniture.

It was a terrific exhibition and more than I expected. So much so that I know I’ll be making trip back to the MCNY at least one more time before the exhibit ends on March 14, 2021. To learn more, please visit: https://www.mcny.org

This is a reprint of my feature in the February 2021 Issue of DollsHouse and Miniature Scene Magazine. Check out this magazine for the latest in happenings in the mini world!


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