In Focus: The Naumburg Room

December 7, 2016
The Naumburg Room—complete with dark wooden paneling and elaborate stained-glass windows—looks almost exactly as it did in 1930 when Nettie Naumburg bequeathed it to the Fogg Museum. 

When you step into the Naumburg Room, you’re not just entering a private, hidden space at the Harvard Art Museums. You’re traveling back in time, and traversing a few hundred miles, to the early 20th-century New York City apartment of philanthropists Nettie and Aaron Naumburg.

The space—complete with dark wooden paneling and elaborate stained-glass windows—looks almost exactly as it did in 1930 when Nettie Naumburg bequeathed it to the Fogg Museum. Formerly the common room from the couple’s apartment in New York’s famous Hotel des Artistes, the Naumburg Room was completely dismantled and shipped to Cambridge, where it was re-installed in a custom-built wing at the Fogg in 1932.

No element was left behind: 10,000 pieces, including the couple’s floors, stairway, ceiling, Jacobean-style paneling, Swiss stained glass windows, tapestries, textiles, sculptures, pottery, and furniture, were transported to their new permanent home at Harvard. The room’s collection of about 20 paintings, including works by artists such as Rembrandt and Bartolomé Murillo, was also relocated.

Even the quirkiest features, three secret compartments hidden within the walls, were re-installed, precisely where they’d been located in the Naumburgs’ common room. Though it’s fun to imagine how these shallow compartments might have been used, museums staff believe the couple actually treated the hidden spaces as cabinets, where they stored items as mundane as wine glasses and oversized crockery. One of the compartments is today used for an equally ordinary purpose: storing audiovisual equipment.

The Naumburgs had wanted their room “to live and to be lived in,” said their nephew, James N. Rosenberg, in 1932. Thus, for more than 70 years, the Naumburg Room was a social space, hosting classes, parties, and lunches for Harvard faculty, students, and staff. It was also the site of a weekly coffee hour for museum employees.

The 2008 renovation of the museums provided an opportunity for conservators to reassess and conserve various facets of the room—from stained glass to wood panels to plasterwork. Facilities staff also used the time to make the space more functional for 21st-century needs. They integrated audiovisual equipment, climate controls, and custom lighting into the room, allowing it to effectively maintain its role as a space for meetings, special events, and classes. More important, museums staff took advantage of the renovation to work with Renzo Piano Building Workshop and our conservators to relocate the room from its original site in the Fogg Museum to a new, much improved space. The room’s staircase and balcony didn’t lead anywhere in the building in the first site, for example, so architects were now able to connect them to the director’s office and curatorial suites. Relocating the room was no small feat: every element had to be disassembled and stored (or sent to conservation) and then the entire room had to be re-installed.

With its impressive history and masterful restoration, the space continues to serve the essential purpose Nettie Naumburg envisioned in her will: “a living room for living people to whom art is a living thing,” as her nephew put it at the 1932 opening of the room’s Harvard incarnation.

The Naumburg Room is available for private event rentals, providing period charm for intimate weddings, parties, and corporate events. See our rentals page for more information.

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