A fully-furnished 1880s Aesthetic Movement bedroom from a posh New York City mansion has been given to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by the Museum of the City of New York.
The gift is additionally meaningful because of the rags-to-riches story of the woman who once owned the room – a native Richmonder of modest means who survived the Civil War and ultimately penetrated the country’s wealthiest circles.
Catharine Arabella “Belle” Duval Yarrington was born in Richmond in the summer of 1850. By age 15, she was fatherless in a war-ravaged South, living in Richmond’s First Ward near Capitol Square in what was probably a residential hotel operated by her mother. Six blocks away, among the city’s notorious gaming halls and bawdy houses, she met John Archer Worsham, the owner of a highly successful “faro bank” – a card-playing establishment in which the proprietor acted as a banker. By the late 1860s, Arabella and her family had moved to New York, where Worsham and his brother owned another faro bank on Broadway. Arabella’s relationship with Worsham lasted until 1870. A year later, Worsham’s Richmond establishment was raided. He died in 1878.
In 1877, Arabella Worsham – as she was then known – purchased a home built in 1865 on prime Manhattan real estate at 4 West Fifty-fourth Street. In 1881 she commissioned major New York decorating firms to design the interiors for the four-story mansion with its two-story carriage house and elaborate gardens. The bedroom was likely the work of Pottier & Stymus and Sypher & Co.
After her second marriage on July 12, 1884 – to Collis P. Huntington, the mastermind of the Central Pacific Railroad – Arabella was widely regarded as the richest woman in America. The wedding was held at her mansion, nine months following the death of Huntington’s first wife. Shortly thereafter, Arabella sold the house to John D. Rockefeller Sr., who left the interiors largely intact. After his death in 1937, his son John Jr. donated three rooms from the mansion to the Museum of the City of New York and the Brooklyn Museum.
As part of an ongoing expansion and modernization of its Fifth Avenue building, the Museum of the City of New York has given the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts the bedroom and its furnishings – citing its size, which could not be accommodated on the renovated floors. (A dressing room and its furnishings will go to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
Following her husband’s death, Arabella married for a second time – to her late husband’s nephew, Henry E. Huntington, with whom she created the renowned Huntington collection at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Cal. She died in 1924.