overview

Elsie de Wolfe, often credited as America’s first professional interior designer, and Elisabeth Marbury, one of the world’s leading, and pioneering female, theatrical agents and producers, lived together in this house near Union Square between 1892 and 1911.

Their Sunday salons here became well known for hosting many celebrities connected with the arts, society, and politics.

Header Photo
Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

History

The Victorian lesbian power couple Elsie de Wolfe (1859-1950), often credited as America’s first professional interior designer, and Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury (1856-1933), one of the world’s leading, and pioneering female, theatrical agents and producers, lived in this house at the corner of East 17th Street and Irving Place, near Union Square, between 1892 and 1911. They first met in 1887, and their relationship lasted nearly 40 years.

When they began leasing the house in 1892, de Wolfe was an actress and Marbury was just then establishing her career as an agent to the leading European and American playwrights (her clients included Oscar Wilde). Their house was located near the home of Marbury’s parents and several friends and was close to the Union Square theaters. In 1897 and 1898, de Wolfe began to redecorate and simplify the interiors of No. 122, gaining experience and publicity that enabled her to launch her career as an interior decorator in 1905.

De Wolfe and Marbury opened their home to their many friends from abroad, and in 1897 began to host famous Sunday afternoon “teas.” These attracted American and European celebrities connected with the worlds of the arts, society, and politics. Marbury characterized the house as “a glorified Ellis Island.”

You never know whom you are going to meet at Bessie’s and Elsie’s but you can always be sure they will be interesting and you will have a good time.

William C. Whitney, millionaire

Landmark Designations for LGBT Significance
In 1998, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated the East 17th Street/Irving Place Historic District, which includes Marbury and de Wolfe’s home. While LGBT significance was not stated as a reason for landmarking, the Marbury and de Wolfe home was the third LGBT mention in a designation report in the history of the LPC (established in 1965). The report’s authors, Jay Shockley and Gale Harris, then in the Research Department at the LPC, were only allowed to include this history by citing a New York Times article that referred to Marbury and de Wolfe as “the most fashionable lesbian couple of Victorian New York.” This was the first report to use the word “lesbian.” Shockley went on to co-found the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project in 2015 and Harris became a project consultant. See the report in the “Read More” section below.

Entry by Jay Shockley, project director (March 2017).

NOTE: Names above in bold indicate LGBT people.

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: Unknown
  • Year Built: 1843-44 (later alterations c. 1853-54 and c. 1868-70)

Sources

  1. Christopher D. Brazee, Gale Harris, and Jay Shockley, “150 Years of LGBT History,” New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (June 2014).

  2. Gale Harris and Jay Shockley, East 17th Street/ Irving Place Historic District Designation Report (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 1998).

  3. Paula Martinac, The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).

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Art & Architecture

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Lesbian Life Before Stonewall

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Pre-20th Century History

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