May 15, 2002: Features

Folk art collector Ralph Esmerian ’62 and architect Tod Williams ’65 *67 collaborated on New York’s newest museum

By David Marcus ’92

Photos: Above: The allegorical figure of Fame caps a circa-1890 New York weathervane; Below, left, the St. Tammany weathervane, circa 1890, rises above the museum’s Grand Staircase between the third and fourth floors; Below, right the museum’s dramatic façade

The small piece of flawlessly carved white ivory forms a stylized seahorse with a curved tail, a gently arched, elongated neck, and extended fore and hind legs. The front hooves hold a crenellated wheel, and three-inch tines extend from the creature’s forehead, just above its ebony eyes. Made by an unidentified New England artist around 1870, probably while on a whaling trip, the whimsical creature’s practicality matches its elegance. The wheel was for trimming piecrusts, the tines for poking holes in them so steam could escape from baking pies.

This equipoise of form and function is typical of the American folk art owned by Ralph Esmerian ’62 and by the museum in which it is being shown. Last year, Esmerian donated his 400-piece collection to the American Folk Art Museum, which made the collection the inaugural exhibition in its new showpiece home, a Manhattan building designed by Tod Williams ’65 *67 that opened in December 2001.

Esmerian was inspired to collect during a two-year stay in Athens after his Princeton graduation. While in Greece, he picked up shards of ancient pottery as mementos of trips to the country. Though he left the pieces there, he says, “It gave me my first taste of physical possession of something, the thrill of having something in my hand from another time.”

The trip also gave him a theme for his collection. In Greece, he says, “You saw America in a different style, and you saw how fantastic a country it was. You saw it from a distance. What a culture! What a country!”

Esmerian saw that culture reflected in 19th-century folk art. “The art had a purpose,” he says. “It didn’t have a dealer and a museum and an audience pushing people and saying, ‘Make art.’ These are people who’d learned by being a potter or woodcarver. It was to satisfy either a personal need or a utilitarian need. There’s a charm in that.”

Other collectors had been moved by that same power earlier. “The great folk art collections of depth and breadth were formed from the late 1930s to the early 1950s,” explains John Wilmerding, a professor of American art history at Princeton whose grandmother Electra Webb amassed one of those collections. For later collectors like Esmerian, Wilmerding says, “The stuff was a lot rarer. In the 1950s, you could buy dozens of great weathervanes. After that, they would be few and far between.”

Undaunted, Esmerian read catalogs, visited museums, and spent time in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where he developed a taste for painting and pottery and fraktur, elaborately colored, finely detailed texts written in German that range from baptismal certificates to books of music.

“As you met people in the countryside and you got to know something and buy it and live with it, you were entranced with the field,” he says. “They’d pull something out and offer it to you for an extraordinary amount of money. You also stayed in touch with country auctions and house sales. Very slowly, you would add. As prices went up, people brought things out to sell. Little by little, the staircase was filling up.”

Esmerian’s profession aided his collecting. Upon returning from Greece, he went to work for his father, a third-generation dealer in precious gems who emigrated to New York from Paris with his family just after Ralph was born in 1940. The son later took over the business. “Every day I’m looking at color and shape and design, and that’s a tremendous advantage over other collectors,” he says.

The breadth of Esmerian’s collection, which ranges from portraiture to scrimshaw, is one of its strengths. “He’s collected really fine examples across the whole field,” Wilmerding says of Esmerian, taking scrimshaw as an example. “At the Mystic [Connecticut] Museum, they have a great maritime collection. While there might be better pieces, or many more pieces, in a maritime museum, having a sampler of it in this collection makes it much more interesting, because you see it as part of the spectrum of the practical arts.”

As Esmerian’s collection grew, so did his ambition. “The objects came first,” he said. “Then I let myself get dragged into this thought that these things were here at the start of our civilization. Together, they represented a culture. That led me to push for an institution in New York that had a collection of folk art. In New York, there was no true, good representation of American folk art.” In 1973, he joined the board of trustees of what was then the Museum of American Folk Art and became involved in finding a permanent home for the institution, which had a cramped space near Lincoln Center.

The Folk Art Museum spent almost 20 years deciding what to do with a prime site it owned on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, next to the Museum of Modern Art. Finally, in 1997 Esmerian and the other trustees tapped Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates, a 15-person shop in New York that designed Princeton’s Feinberg Hall in 1986.

The committee was particularly impressed by a Manhattan townhouse Williams designed for art collector Jerry Speyer in 1995. “We realized that on a smaller plot than we owned, they had expanded the space,” Esmerian says.

The museum’s collection and its 40-by-100-foot lot demanded a similarly intimate scale. “It’s more a house for folk art than a traditional museum,” says Billie Tsien, Williams’s partner and wife. Before designing the museum, the two immersed themselves in American folk art for four months. A visit to Esmerian’s art-filled Upper East Side townhouse showed them that “it was more important to have more art up and to show things that are on the back shelf — as if you’re being invited into your grandmother or grandfather’s house,” says Williams. “People who collected it were treating it in a very personal way.”

The architects (who also included project architect Matthew Baird ’87) had to balance that modesty with their ambitions for the building, the first museum built in New York since the Whitney Museum opened in 1966. They considered the designs of both the Whitney and New York’s Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950s and famous for its spiral staircase.

“In the Whitney, we particularly like the stairway, where art has been installed and which allows you to walk through the museum without having to take the elevators,” Williams said. He admired, but he did not copy. The Whitney’s stairs are in a corner of the museum, so most visitors do take the elevator. Williams’s central, cozy staircase entices viewers to pause so they can ponder display cases featuring items from duck decoys to a Santa Claus.

Williams and Tsien nodded to Wright by opening up the middle of their museum so visitors can see from the lobby five floors up to a skylight at the top of the building. “It’s as if you took the Guggenheim and squooshed it into a shoebox,” Tsien says.

The references are echoes rather than slavish imitation. “I try to absorb them and not mimic them,” Williams says of buildings he admires. “I think many people when they see these architects feel that they have to copy them and remake them in a modern idiom. I don’t do that. I’m interested in something that is felt more than learned.”

In designing the museum’s interior space, Williams and Tsien occasionally suggested where works should go. They attached St. Tammany, a nine-foot-tall weather vane depicting a Native American, to a wall by the third floor. The piece is lit to cast a shadow on the white wall behind it.

Those touches add to the building. “Like the Guggenheim, this is a museum that’s a work of art in its own right,” Wilmerding says. Part of the appeal, he adds, is “the imaginativeness of the decoys going up the wall, seeing glimpses of weathervanes.”

Williams prefers to focus attention on the interiors of his buildings, but he took advantage of the museum’s site on 53rd Street to design a bold façade assembled out of large panels of Tombasil. The white bronze alloy was poured onto a foundry floor, giving it a rough surface whose color changes with the time of day and the angle and intensity of light that strikes it. “I feel particularly good about the façade’s moodiness,” Williams says. “When the sun goes behind the cloud, it becomes very moody. Pretty New York.”

Esmerian hopes his art proves as dazzling as the building’s façade. “I lived with it for 30 years,” he says of his collection, “and now that it’s been out of my house and my office for six months, people say, ‘Do you miss it?’ I don’t. It should be out in the world. It gets you thinking about this country and this culture. I don’t need to have it. It’s a part of me.”

David Marcus ’92 is a frequent contributor to PAW.

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