Tiffany is Rescued from the Ashes

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1942

Louis Comfort Tiffany was one of America’s seminal artists and craftsmen, known for his shimmering leaded windows, rainbow-colored lamps, sparkling jewelry, sinuous curves of blown glass, and immersive environments like entire chambers that he designed from floor to vaulted ceiling. Though Tiffany lived and worked in New York, the most spectacular trove of his work is now located in Winter Park, Florida—thanks to two philanthropists.

Tiffany built a spectacular home, known as Laurelton Hall, in suburban Long Island. He installed there some of his greatest masterpieces, along with a freestanding art museum, an art school, elaborate gardens, and more. When he died, Tiffany left an endowment so the property could remain open to the public as a gallery of his life’s work, and a training center for a new generation of creators. But fate intervened, the money ran out, and eventually much of his estate was abandoned. Then a disastrous fire swept the premises. This was a calamitous end to the career of one of America’s most beloved designers and artists.

Preparations were made to bulldoze the rubble. That would also have buried much of Tiffany’s reputation. But Jeannette and Hugh McKean leapt into action to save Tiffany’s treasures for future generations.

Jeannette was the granddaughter of the great American industrialist and donor Charles Hosmer Morse. Her husband Hugh had studied art himself at the Tiffany estate during the 1930s. Both of them loved Tiffany’s revolutionary glass and gorgeous decorative work. Shortly after the Laurelton Hall burn, the philanthropists offered the Tiffany family a payment for the right to salvage whatever they could from the ashes. They picked through the wreckage, retrieved soot-covered objects, and transported them to their home region in Florida for conservation and reconstruction—a classic act of philanthropic derring-do.

Today, some of Tiffany’s highest achievements can be seen in the museum the McKeans created and named in honor of Jeannette’s grandfather. The Charles Hosmer Morse museum highlights Tiffany’s lush windows of stained glass, blown glass, mosaics, ceramics, wondrous lamps, ambitious landscape structures influenced by Islamic and Asian motifs, and the full prayer chapel that Tiffany created for the 1893 world’s fair.

These Tiffany treasures are concentrated and shown to particular advantage in a new museum wing opened in 2011 thanks to funding from the Hosmer descendants. The Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation still owns the museum and all of the Tiffany works it rescued from destruction. It makes this art available to the public without any government funding.