The Forgotten Brothers: The Herts Brothers and Their Contributions to the Decorative Arts in America

Monday, September 13, 2010

By Gilda Acosta

The Herts Brothers were prominent interior and furniture designers from New York City. Their business, run by Isaac H. Herts and his brother, Benjamin H. Herts, furnished major buildings in New York City including the New York Produce Exchange, the Columbia Bank, the Union Square Bank; hotels such as the Knickerbocker, Hotel St. Regis, and the Woodward and Murray Hill Hotel; social clubs such as the Criterion, Progress, and Colonial; and, the yachts of William Astor and other important clients. The Herts Brothers were also involved with exhibitions at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago. Today, some of their furniture can be found at various museums across the United States, and some surface at auctions.

The Herts Brothers can trace their background to their father, Henry B. Herts, an antiques dealer and auctioneer, who migrated to the United States from England. He appears in several notices in the New York Times for important auctions held at the time. In 1870, the Times reported that Mr. J. W. Southack, a famous cabinet maker, “had secured the services of the celebrated auctioneer, Mr. Henry B. Herts to sell his entire stock of elegant cabinet furniture of public auction.” In Henry Lancour’s American Art Auction Catalogues 1785-1942, a compilation of over seven thousand catalogues of auction sales of art objects held in the United States during the period, Henry B. Herts[1] is listed as having held auctions from 1871-1874 and under the name of H. B. Herts & Sons from the period of 1875 to 1890.

It seems that by 1876 Isaac and Benjamin were working together as furniture makers. New York City directories listed their furniture business address as 806 Broadway while their father and two of his other sons, Maurice A. Herts and Abe H. Herts, [2] continued in the auction business with their address listed as 17 Park Place.

Richard Edwards, in his book, New York’s Great Industries, published in 1884, lists the business of H. B. Herts & Sons, originally founded by Henry B. Herts in 1846, as Importers of Antiques and Objets D'Art”, located at 747 Broadway and extending to 306 Mercer Street. The shop, occupying three floors each measuring 210 feet deep, was described as having magnificent salesrooms with a display of antiques and objects of art imported from major art centers in the world including Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, Limoges and Budolstadt. Edwards describes that the rooms reflected an air of elegance, taste and beauty noting that the “delicate French china, decorated table and mantle ware, statuettes in bronze and bisque, Limoges and Sevres ware of every description, baccarat glass, articles of vertu, rare and beautiful ornaments, and handsome objects of art and use are arranged with most astonishing effect, and constitute but a very small portion of the vast assortment of this firm, which has searched every land to obtain the thousands of magnificent articles, which eventually will adorn palatial buildings and humble cottages.” H.B. Herts & Sons employed seven experienced agents based in Europe who were tasked with finding and purchasing the antiques and had branches in Paris and Amsterdam. They also made antique reproduction furniture in oak and mahogany and carried a large stock of old woods, which, as described by Edwards, “they could transform into reproductions of foreign designs in doors and carvings unsurpassed for beauty finish and actual worth.”




Image from the WalterHavighurstSpecialCollections Library atMiamiUniversity, Oxford,Ohio

The Herts Brothers participated in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the first World’s Fair in the United States. Their exhibit at the Main Building displayed a bedroom scene with canopy bed, dresser, tables, settees, curtains, portraits on the walls, and a mirror.





[Permission to use this image requires the written approval of the Free Library of Philadelphia]

At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the Herts Brothers won the highest award in their category for their Louis XV room at the Manufacturers Building. The New York Times described the room noting that it was a “dream of high-art of interior design.” The room’s furniture, ceilings and walls were rose cream, white and gold enameled. The ceiling contained festoons of flowers and in the center, an oval canvas with a painting of Psyche carried away to the temple of the gods. The walls contained separate panels that were carved and gilded and filled with silk fabric in white and gold. The room had a mantel with “Vernis-Martin[3]” panels depicting pastoral scenes, mounted by a carved frame that was surmounted by a tapestry panel depicting Love giving the apple before the judgment of Paris. Twin bedsteads, richly carved, with pale rose satin damask, were located on a raised platform on the west side of the room. The head and foot of the beds had “Vernis-Martin” panels and the canopies had curtains and draperies of the same tapestry as the wall panels. Other pieces of furniture included a unique armoire glacĂ© and chiffonier combined, that had panels and drawers decorated also with “Vernis-Martin,” a dressing bureau, with mirror that had attached specially-designed candelabra, a chaise lounge, a cheval glass mirror, and several tables, pedestals and chairs. All the upholstery was of peach rose satin damask and the woodwork was carved with elaborate detail. The floor was covered with an Axminster rug and the room had electric lighting with brackets covered in ormolu. The New York Times went on to note that “so elaborate is the conception of this room, so perfect in detail, and so faithful as a reproduction of Louis XV decorative art, that it is a matter of astonishment that New-York has produced what it was generally supposed only France could accomplish.” The room was completed at a cost of $25,000, a staggering sum at the time. In another article, the New York Times notes that the Princess Eulalie of Spain, who visited the Columbia Exposition, was particularly impressed by the Louis XV room and that this was one of the few exhibits she was enthusiastic about.

In addition to designing and furnishing the Louis XV room, the Herts Brothers produced the paneling for the New York State Building, also for the Columbia Exposition. The architects of the building, which was constructed in the Renaissance style, were McKim, White & Meade and the building’s cost was budgeted at $77,500. The New York Times described the plans of the building which was three stories high, with the roofs having three terraces fashioned as hanging gardens. The main entrance was through an open portico guarded by two lions modeled after the famous Barberini lions. The main floor housed reception rooms and in the back there was a topographical map of New York State, measuring 36x26, and observable from a spiral stairway. The second floor housed a large banquet hall and the third floor was for the press. The interior and exterior furnishings were estimated at over $100,000 with some of the cost supported by voluntary contributions of which the carpets were to be provided by W &J Sloane, the paneling by Herts Brothers and the lighting and fixtures by Archer and Pancoast Manufacturing Company.

During the time that the Herts Brothers’ business was active, their furniture factories were damaged twice by large fires and later, their business had to file for bankruptcy. In 1877, a large fire broke out in Alexander Roux’s factory at West 18th Street near Seventh Avenue, which spread to Pierre J. Hardy’s furniture factory on West 19th Street and to Huntzinger's chair factory on Seventh Avenue. According to the New York Times, these three buildings were destroyed and a number of surrounding buildings were damaged. The Herts Brothers occupied the third and fourth floor of the P.J. Hardy building and incurred inventory losses of $10,000 while Pierre J. Hardy had the largest loss at $80,000. Total losses were estimated close to $240,000.

In 1899, the Herts Brothers factory, which at that time occupied a six-story brick building at 104 and 106 East 32nd street caught fire, after, it was believed, an office boy, who had gone down to the basement to search for some design plans, dropped a lighted match there. Around 8,000 people gathered to watch the fire that was attended by 125 firemen. The fire was contained to the basement and first floors of the building causing damages of around $4,000.

An article published in the New York Time on May, 1st 1908, states that creditors to the Herts Brothers filed a petition for bankruptcy. The article reports that the business had debts of $200,000, of which $50,000 was for merchandise and $150,000 was owed to banks and friends, against assets of only $50,000 and that apparently, the business made $5,000 in preferential payments to some of its creditors.

Benjamin’s son, Benjamin Russell Herts, became a playwright, and some of his plays were produced in Broadway, but he was also involved in the interior decorating business, with his father and uncle. The New York City directory of 1916 lists him as president of Herts Brothers and Company, with his father as treasurer and his Uncle Isaac, vice president, and the company’s address at 20 West 57th Street. Shortly afterwards, in 1918, Isaac passed away followed by Benjamin six years later.

The Herts Brothers made many furniture pieces during the Victorian era. The two pieces below are beautiful extent examples of their work. The cabinet below left, from around 1885 and currently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art is made of faux-grained rosewood and other woods, alabaster, glass, mother-of-pearl. The cabinet on the right, currently at the Newark Museum is of wood, glass, onyx, brass, and velvet.






Image shown here is from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Image shown here is from the Collection of Newark Museum.


Sources:

Edwards, Richards, New York's Great Industries: Exchange and commercial review, embracing also historical and descriptive sketch of the city, its leading merchants and manufacturers , Edwards & Critten, 1884.

Lancour, Harold, American Art Auction Catalogues 1785-1942, Lancour Press.

“A Louis XV Room with Fittings Made in This Country,” New York Times, July 11, 1893.

“Fire in a Crowded Factory: Cars Blocked in Park Avenue -- Three Alarms Turned In,” New York Times, October 24, 1899.

“Fire on the West Side,” New York Times, October 18, 1877.

“Herts Bros. Bankrupt: Firm of Interior Decorators Owe $200,000-Fitted Many Hotels,” New York Times, May 1st, 1908.

“High Awards at the Fair,” New York Times, October 28th, 1893.

“Important Auction Sale of Fine Furniture,” New York Times, 1870.

“New York at the Big Fair,” New York Times, July 1st, 1892.

www.ancenstry.com



[1] Henry B. Herts died in London in 1884 and was interred in the United States.

[2] According to the New York Time, Abe H. Herts became a partner with the firm of Seligman Brothers, cloak manufacturers. The firm went bankrupt in 1891 and listed as one of its creditors Benjamin H. Herts and Isaac H. Herts.

[3] Vernis Martin is an 18th century French japanning technique, named after the Martin brothers, who perfected the technique in about 1730.

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