The Alexandria Ballroom in the American Wing of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art
By Nicholas C. Vincent
One of the most spectacular spaces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing is a room that once stood in Alexandria, Virginia: the grand ballroom from Gadsby’s Tavern [fig. 1]. Completed in 1793, this late Georgian-style room is generously proportioned and features a paneled wainscot, carved fretwork chair rail, doorways and fireplace mantels with broken-scroll pediments, a fully articulated cornice, and an overhanging musician’s balcony. Just as impressive as the room’s architectural features are its historical associations: here, in 1799, George Washington attended his last birthday ball, and in 1824 the Marquis de Lafayette was entertained during his triumphal American visit. Others notable figures to have socialized in the ballroom include John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson.
Fig 1: The ballroom from Gadsby’s Tavern in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 2009.
Photo by Gavin Ashworth.
The room was originally located on the second floor of the City Tavern (later called the City Hotel), built by John Wise in 1792 at the corner of Cameron and Royal Streets in Alexandria, Virginia. Adjoining the City Tavern was a smaller tavern built by Wise around 1785 [fig. 2]. Today, the two buildings are open to the public as Gadsby’s Tavern Museum – so named for John Gadsby, the proprietor in the years 1796 to 1808. During the tavern’s heyday, Alexandria was located on the principal road over which travelers from the south passed on their way to Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital. The tavern was also a favorite stopping place for those who sought out Washington in retirement at Mount Vernon, eight miles away.1
Fig 2: At left, the circa 1785 tavern. At right, the larger 1792 City Tavern (later called the City Hotel). The ballroom was originally located on the right half of the second-floor of the City Tavern. Photo, Library of Congress.
In the early twentieth century, the woodwork from the ballroom was purchased by the Metropolitan and installed in the American Wing, where it has been displayed ever since. What follows is the story of how and why this significant piece of Alexandria’s cultural history ended up in New York City.
The opening of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on November 11, 1924, was a landmark event in the history of American decorative arts and historic preservation. A gift of trustee Robert W. de Forest, the new wing for American art was housed in a three-story building fronted by a salvaged neoclassical bank façade [fig. 3]. Exhibited inside were a series of period rooms and galleries – including the ballroom from Gadsby’s Tavern – chronicling the history of American decorative arts from the colonial to the early Federal periods.2 This assemblage of historic interiors provided a sympathetic setting for the display of household furnishings, and also afforded an opportunity “for a comprehensive survey of the evolution as well as the varying characteristics of early American art such as hitherto [had] not been possible in any one place.” 3 Most significantly, the new wing was a clear statement that the cultural and artistic heritage of early America was worthy of display in a major art museum.
Fig 3: The American Wing in 1924. The neoclassical façade was taken from the Branch Bank of the United States (built 1824; demolished 1915). Photo, Metropolitan Museum.
The impetus for the American Wing began back in 1909, when, as part of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration (a city-wide event honoring Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River in 1609 and Robert Fulton’s first steamboat ride up the river in 1807), the Museum mounted an exhibition of American furniture and related decorative arts from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries [fig. 4]. Although the organizers of the Hudson-Fulton exhibition were convinced of the beauty and cultural significance of these objects (what we would call “Americana” today), the final verdict lay with the public. Fortunately, the displays proved enormously popular, and the Museum immediately set about planning for a new wing devoted to American art.4 One of the first tasks was to acquire historic woodwork and interiors in order to provide context for the domestic objects on display. A nationwide search for fine examples of historic architecture ensued.
Fig 4: The 1909 Hudson-Fulton exhibition at the Metropolitan. The first exhibition of its kind and a catalyst for the American Wing. Note the architectural wall fragment at far right – an early attempt to provide more appropriate context for the decorative arts. Photo, Metropolitan Museum.
In 1917, representatives from the Museum learned that the owners of Gadsby’s Tavern were open to selling portions of the interior woodwork from the 1792 City Hotel building. Since its prosperous years under John Gadsby, the tavern had experienced a gradual decline: the owners renovated the City Hotel structure in 1878 in an attempt to make the business profitable, but Alexandria’s economy never fully recovered after the Civil War. By the time the Museum became involved, the building no longer functioned as a hotel; instead, a junk shop occupied the first floor and the grand second-floor ballroom had been subdivided into three apartments. Miraculously, however, much of the historic woodwork remained intact, hidden beneath layers of paint, wallpaper, and grime.5
In a letter written on May 16, 1917, Durr Friedley, the Acting Curator of Decorative Arts, implored the Museum’s Director, Edward Robinson, to support the purchase of the ballroom: “No other room similar to this is known to exist in the United States, and the chances of discovering another specimen are remote. Such woodwork is most desirable for use in the proposed American Wing, for the installation of the American collections. The design ranks with the best, the size is unique, and the historical connection with Washington and Lafayette adds to its interest as a Museum specimen.”6 Friedley’s plea was successful. The purchase was authorized on May 21, 1917, and the woodwork was removed a few weeks later. In addition to the paneling, mantelpieces, door and window surrounds, cornice, and musician’s balcony from the ballroom, the Museum also acquired two mantelpieces from the first-floor dining room and the original eighteenth-century front door.7 Whereas the ballroom was installed as a self-contained period room, the various architectural elements were incorporated into separate galleries throughout the wing.8
Like many of the rooms that ultimately found their way into the American Wing, the ballroom’s fate seemed uncertain at the time of its purchase, and the Museum justified its acquisition as a means of preserving at least a portion of a once-venerable building. Of course, architectural salvage is never without controversy, and in the press releases leading up to the opening of the American Wing, the Museum deflected criticism that it was pillaging historic relics by noting that it had “refrained from purchasing any room or building which local pride and interest were attempting to preserve for the advantage of the public.”9 Although the Alexandria Gazette lamented at the time of the ballroom’s removal, “The Old City Hotel…is to be denuded of its relics of bygone days,” local opposition to the purchase appears to have been minimal.10
As a period room, the ballroom possessed the ideal combination of intrinsic aesthetic beauty and historical associations. Moreover, its grand proportions (48’ by 22’) made it well suited for use as a gallery for the display of eighteenth-century furniture and paintings – a function it continues to serve today. The room’s impressive scale and charming details were not lost upon the press: a review in the New York Times on November 9, 1924, singled out the ballroom as “the largest and most ambitious of the wonderful series in the new wing.”11
The publicity surrounding the new American Wing and its “rescued” interiors served as a catalyst for a growing preservation movement throughout the country. In Alexandria, residents began to take stock of their city’s substantial cultural heritage, and in 1929 the American Legion Post No. 24 purchased the dilapidated City Hotel and tavern buildings with the intent of restoring them to their eighteenth-century appearance. By 1932, in time for the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, the restoration of the 1785 tavern and the 1792 City Hotel was underway.12
Spearheaded by local preservation groups, notably the Daughters of the American Revolution, the ballroom of the City Hotel was reproduced in 1940 based on the original woodwork in the Metropolitan [fig. 5]13. Ever since, visitors to the American Wing already familiar with Gadsby’s Tavern have experienced a sense of déjà vu upon encountering the room in New York. However, not all of the ballroom woodwork in Gadsby’s Tavern is a twentieth-century reproduction: an original window, walled-in during the renovations made in 1878, was discovered in the 1970s and provided the original Prussian blue color sample that is the basis for both ballrooms’ paint colors.14
Fig 5: The ballroom in Gadsby’s Tavern as it appears today. The room was reproduced in 1940 based
In 1949, in honor of Alexandria’s bicentennial celebration, the original exterior door to the City Tavern was restored to its original location through the efforts of several prominent Alexandria citizens and organizations. That November, the reinstalled doorway graced the cover of The Magazine Antiques.15 Ever since, a spirit of cooperation has characterized the relationship between the Metropolitan and supporters of Gadsby’s Tavern. In recent years, the staff of the American Wing has consulted with members of the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum on everything from paint treatments and window hangings to the proper placement of cloak pins.
Recently, a new chapter was added to the ballroom’s history. In the spring of 2009, the American Wing reopened after a multi-year project to renovate and renew the courtyard and period rooms. As part of the restoration, the Alexandria Ballroom received a comprehensive overhaul of its climate, electrical, and fire suppression systems, which will help protect and preserve the room for future generations. Additionally, the woodwork was repainted with eighteenth-century style paint made of hand-ground pigments suspended in linseed oil and applied with boar’s bristle brushes using historically accurate paintings techniques. The new paint coat replaces a latex paint applied in 1980, and, it is hoped, is closer to the original paint layer than its predecessor.
The ballroom has also benefited from a new installation plan featuring highlights from the Museum’s collection of American furniture and paintings. [Figs. 1, 6] The spacious chamber now serves as a worthy backdrop for furniture masterworks from colonial Newport, Philadelphia, and Boston. Anchoring the central window pier is a monumental portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, based on life sittings but completed just after Washington’s death. Thus, the first president continues to hold court over the grand ballroom from Alexandria.
Fig 6: The Alexandria Ballroom in the Metropolitan today with its new paint coat and revised installation plan. Photo, Metropolitan Museum.
For assistance with this article, the author thanks Gretchen Bulova, Amelia Peck, and Eliza Stoner.
For general histories of the ballroom and Gadsby’s Tavern, see James C. Mackay, III, “Built for a Tavern: A Brief History of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum,” (1992 Historic Alexandria Antique Show Catalogue); R. T. H. Halsey and Charles O. Cornelius, A Handbook of the American Wing (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1924); Gay Montague Moore, Seaport in Virginia: George Washington’s Alexandria (Richmond, VA: Garrett and Massie, Inc., 1949); Russell Hawes Kettell, ed., Early American Rooms (Portland, ME: The Southworth-Anthoensen Press, 1936); and Chas. H. Callahan, Gadsby’s Tavern (Alexandria, VA: American Legion Post, undated).
Amelia Peck, “Robert de Forest and the Founding of the American Wing” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 157, no. 1 (January 2000), pp. 176-181.
“The World of Art: Houses of Our Ancestors in the Metropolitan Museum,” New York Times, August 24, 1924.
See Frances Gruber Safford, “The Hudson-Fulton exhibition and H. Eugene Bolles,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 157, no. 1 (January 2000), pp. 170-175; and Megan Holloway Fort, “The Hudson-Fulton Celebration,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 175, no. 6 (June 2009), pp. 48-54.
Gretchen Bulova, “New York Met buys Gadsby’s Tavern parts in 1917,” Mount Vernon Gazette, November 21, 1996.
This letter and additional correspondence relating to the purchase of the ballroom woodwork are in the Metropolitan Museum archives.
The front door had been moved to the Cameron Street side during the 1878 renovation.
The front door and one of the first-floor chimneypieces were returned to Gadsby’s Tavern in 1949 and 1975, respectively.
“The World of Art,” New York Times, August 24, 1924.
“Relics to be Removed,” Alexandria Gazette, June 12, 1917. For a description of the tavern’s run-down appearance and local indifference to it, see Elise Lathrop, Early American Inns and Taverns (New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1926; New Edition by Tudor Publishing Company, 1946), p. 216.
“The World of Art: The New Wing at the Metropolitan Museum,” New York Times, November 9, 1924.
See Bulova, Mount Vernon Gazette, November 21, 1996; and Mackay, “Built for a Tavern.” Both articles are available at: http://oha.alexandriava.gov/gadsby/
See Alan Kemper, “Gadsby’s Tavern,” (1975 Historic Alexandria Antiques Show Catalogue); and Hope Ridings Miller, “Gadsby’s Tavern Slates Opening,” Antique Monthly, October 1975.
Paint analysis reports by Matthew J. Mosca (1975) and Susan L. Buck (2006) are in the files of the American Wing, Metropolitan Museum.
Gay Montague Moore, “History in Houses: Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 61, no. 5 (November 1949), 348.