FURNISHINGS : Herter Brothers Crafted Pieces for a Gilded Age


From immigrant cabinetmakers to White House decorators went the careers of Christian and Gustave Herter. The German-born brothers became custom furniture makers and society decorators during the Gilded Age. They furnished the residences of American millionaires such as J. Pierpont Morgan, Mark Hopkins, William H. Vanderbilt and Jay Gould.

Gustave Herter (1830-1898) had a penchant for heavily ornamented baroque and Louis XIV-style furniture. Christian Herter (1839-1883) achieved a marriage of European styles, including French-style Greek Revival and Anglo-Japanese.

In 1875, when the wife of President Ulysses S. Grant wanted to embellish the Red Room, she ordered $3,765 worth of furniture from Herter Brothers, said assistant White House curator William Allman. A bill of sale lists gilt reception chairs covered in black and gold Japanese velvet with carved lion heads, ladies’ chairs, a rosewood inlaid table with lion heads, a tapestry screen and gold Japanese satin draperies trimmed with damask velvet.

The table was found by Jacqueline Kennedy and placed in the Treaty Room, where it remained through the Reagan era. The table and a gilt chair are now in storage. The rest of the collection has been lost or sold.


(In a generation-skipping connection to the White House, a century after Christian Herter created furniture for President Grant, his grandson and namesake executed foreign policy for President Eisenhower as secretary of state.)

Christian Herter’s ultimate commission--he died in 1883, a year after its completion--was the $2 million Vanderbilt mansion in New York, in which each room was designed with a different theme: Pompeiian vestibule, Japanese parlor, Renaissance dining room, Moorish smoking room and Anglo-Japanese bedrooms.

About 50 pieces of the Herters’ work are the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The exhibit will travel to Atlanta’s High Museum on Dec. 13 and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on March 14. A catalogue and a companion book, “Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age,” has been published by Harry N. Abrams (256 pages, $60).