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Carnegie Hall’s Stained-Glass Windows

Curious patrons who look up upon entering Carnegie Hall’s Box Office lobby are rewarded with the sight of several stained-glass fanlights above the doors. What they may not know is that these treasures were designed by a woman named Alice Cordelia Morse and that the building originally had more of these stained-glass windows—quite a few more, in fact.

An Incomplete History

Many, if not most, of the details surrounding the creation and production of these windows have been lost to history. We believe Morse produced these designs for the studio of celebrated designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, for whom she worked a few years after completing her studies at the Woman’s School of Art at Cooper Union.

Alice Cordelia Morse

Morse left Tiffany’s studio around the time construction began at Carnegie Hall in 1889 to begin her career as a designer of book covers, for which she is most well-known today. It is not clear whether she started designing the windows before she left Tiffany or if she continued working for him on a contract basis. Her stunning designs for Carnegie Hall included not only the lobby fanlights, but also windows for the Chamber Music Hall (known today as Weill Recital Hall), the Chapter Room (a small auditorium once located directly above Weill Recital Hall), and skylights for what were known as the Lodge Rooms, a suite of meeting rooms directly above the auditorium under the Hall’s original mansard roof.

What Happened to the Stained-Glass Windows?

In the same way that little is known about the windows’ original creation, even less is known about their fate over the ensuing century. What is certain is that the fanlights across the façade on 57th Street are the only extant windows, and of the seven original windows, one was removed when several storefronts were added to the building shortly after its purchase in 1925 by real-estate developer Robert E. Simon.

At some point, the remaining windows were painted over in black, as noted by stained-glass artisan Peter Rohlf in a 1991 profile in The New York Times; Rohlf’s family firm restored the windows as part of the extensive building renovations that began in 1982 in anticipation of the Hall’s centennial in 1991.

Sadly, the other windows were most likely removed at much earlier dates. The Lodge Rooms—together with their skylights—were dismantled with the first addition of artist studios in 1894 when the Hall’s original mansard roof was removed and a level of double-height loft studios was added. We don’t know when the Chamber Music Hall and Chapter Room windows were removed; these windows were designed to be placed in front of an air shaft that ran along what was then the Hall’s exterior wall.

The earliest known photo of the Chamber Music Hall from 1919 is inconclusive: The back of the stage where the windows were located is draped in banners, with only the bottom portions of what might be the windows visible. A photo from 1948 (by which time the Chamber Music Hall had been renamed Carnegie Recital Hall) makes clear the windows were gone by that point.

It’s possible that the Chamber Music Hall and Chapter Room windows were gone much earlier; an entry in the Hall’s accounting ledgers from October 23, 1895, registers a payment to the Union Stained Glass Company. Could that company have been contracted to remove the windows? The date falls squarely within the period of construction for the second addition of studio towers to the Hall, when what had been referred to as the “Lateral Building”—the easternmost portion containing the Chamber Music Hall and Chapter Room—was extended to 15 floors. The two smaller auditoriums were located on the third and fifth floors. Did the addition of so many floors above them render the air shaft incapable of delivering any light to illuminate the windows?

Looking Ahead

The answer to the fate of the windows may be lost to history, but for now, we’ll have to be content to enjoy the restored fanlights and Morse’s original drawings for the windows, which can be found at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives. Photo of Carnegie Hall (1891) by F. E. Parshley. Drawings courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. We’re grateful to Caitlin Condell, Mir Finkelman, and Janice Hussain of the Cooper Hewitt for sharing images of the drawings, and Jackie Killian of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for sharing her research on Alice Cordelia Morse.

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