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Elsie de Wolfe, The Colony Club, and the birthplace of American design

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The story of the first American interior decorator

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

It's not hard to find inspiration if you're looking to decorate your home. Thanks to design magazines, websites, even HGTV and Ikea, almost endless resources are available at your fingertips. But that wasn't always the case.

The contemporary concept of an interior designer didn’t exist in American domestic life until about the turn of the 20th century. And the pioneering decorator who started it all, many argue, was the the New York-based Elsie de Wolfe.

Born into a middle-class American family in 1865, Elsie de Wolfe started out life as an actress. “She was quite an aspirational actress,” says Professor Penny Sparke of Kingston University and author of The Modern Interior.

“But it was through dramatics that she met her longtime partner Elisabeth Marbury.” Marbury, Sparke explained, came from a prominent New York family and was a successful literary agent, counting Oscar Wilde among her clients.

It was in the townhouse that Marbury and de Wolfe shared that de Wolfe first started to stretch her aesthetic legs as a decorator. “The townhouse that she restored with Marbury became her showplace of sorts. Friends would come over and see her work. That sort of kicked things off for her,” says Sparke.

Unlike the heavy, dark interiors commonly found in late 19th-century homes, de Wolfe developed a light, airy style influenced by 18th-century France. “Something she often did was what’s called ‘chalky-whiting’,” explains interior designer Alex Papachristidis. “That’s when a piece of furniture gets painted white and then is distressed to look older.”

While she had a penchant for using French antique furniture, she “always used antiques in a whimsical way,” says Papachristidis. He went on to explain that de Wolfe also loved to incorporate nature into her design schemes. She often used hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, for instance, to inspire visions of bucolic gardens.

Meanwhile, her partner Elisabeth Marbury was busy becoming a founding member of The Colony Club: the first social club in New York City established by women, for women. The club was described by The New York Times as representing “a community of interests banded together for mutual advantage, social, artistic, mental, and physical.” Men were permitted as guests—and were strictly relegated to the use of a single room, known as “the strangers’ room.”

The founding members tapped Stanford White—a leading architect of the Gilded Age and personal friend of de Wolfe and Marbury—to design their clubhouse on Madison Avenue.

“White built the clubhouse in the Colonial Revival style, which gained popularity after America’s centennial in 1876,” says Donald Albrecht, Curator for Architecture and Design at The Museum of the City of New York. “The style is all about flat facades, which makes it suitable for using every square inch of a small city plot.”

White’s design work provided the club with some notoriety: When it opened in 1907, The New York Times described the building as “so striking as to evoke general comment.”

When it came to the club’s interiors, Marbury and fellow Colony Club member Anne Morgan, scion of J.P. Morgan, proposed de Wolfe to head up the decoration. The nomination was initially met with resistance—some of the women on the board thought the scale of the project was too great for a woman to handle. Stanford White, however, rushed to support her, saying “Give it to Elsie, and let the girl alone... She knows more than any of us.”

Elise de Wolfe spent two years collecting furnishings and executing her scheme at The Colony Club, which used chintz, soft colors, and delicate fixtures rather than heavy furnishings commonly found in other social clubs about town.

Perhaps the most well-known room from the club was the tea room, designed to look almost like a garden pavilion, again underscoring her penchant for bringing the outdoors in. The furniture was made of wicker, a fountain stood in its center, and the walls were clad in green trellis.

Her work at the club quickly caught the attention of fellow members, sparking her career nearly overnight. Many of her commissions came from her personal social circles—fairly standard for Gilded-Age New York high society—but she eventually counted the Morgans, Vanderbilts, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor among her clients.

Following her success at The Colony Club, explains Professor Sparke, de Wolfe set up an office in New York City and began to take on work beyond her immediate social spheres. De Wolfe even continued to run her office remotely after moving to France—Versailles, specifically—after the World War I.

But what’s most compelling is how the clients wanted her style. That light, whimsical, new approach—an approach that Papachristidis says inspires him (and the general interior design industry) regularly. “In America, we have a slightly fresher approach to decorating,” says Papachristidis. “She was undoubtedly a big influencer in that respect.”

As the decades wore on, other decorators—the term “interior designer” wasn’t used until after World War II—established themselves professionally. Albrecht pinpointed Dorothy Draper especially, among others, as developing the industry that de Wolfe began.

And what of The Colony Club? Just six years later, in 1913, the club—which had grown to the largest women’s club in America—announced they were abandoning Stanford and Elsie’s clubhouse and were going to move uptown to a clubhouse planned by noted architects Delano & Aldrich. The club is still at its second location—at East 63rd Street and Park Avenue—today.

The original structure still stands, too. Now, it’s the headquarters for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, its structural interiors a ghost of what it once was: The birthplace of Elsie de Wolfe’s career—and American interior design.