HUNT DIEDERICH (1884–1953)
Window Railing for the James Byrne Residence, 270 Park Avenue, New York, about 1920
Wrought iron and brass, each 25 3/4 x 64 x 1 1/4 in.
EXHIBITED: Kingore Galleries, New York, April 20–May 12, 1920, First American Exhibition of Sculpture by Hunt Diederich, no.. 29
EX COLL.: the artist; to Mr. and Mrs. James Byrne, New York, by 1920; and by descent to 2016
Diederich produced multiple variations on the theme of cavorting greyhounds in the 1910s and 1920s. These continue to charm today for the harmony of their graceful curves and the elegant proportions and artful juxtapositions of solid and void. His animals are always beautifully attenuated or stylized. While he emphasized design over realism, he never lost sight of the individual essence and nobility of his animal subjects. This early, playful, and dynamic design captures the distinctive sense of animation and vitality that marks Diederich’s work.
This window grate was part of a set of three commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. James Byrne. Byrne was a prominent and wealthy lawyer who lived at the Marguery, an imposing Renaissance Revival building designed by the distinguished architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore. Built in 1916, it occupied a full city block from 47th to 48th Streets between Park and Madison Avenues. Part of the building was set aside for transients and designated the Hotel Marguery. The remaining structure, intended for millionaire and celebrity tenants, contained “several of the most expensive apartments in the world (Record and Guide, June 21, 1919, as quoted on the website “Daytonian in Manhattan,” entry November 19, 2015). Among James Byrne’s fellow renters were Harry S. Harkness (Standard Oil Company), Harold S. Vanderbilt, Henry Huddleston Rogers, Jr. (Standard Oil), James Alexander Stillman (Chairman, National City Bank), August Belmont, and the famous Irish tenor, John McCormack.
James Byrne (1857–1942) enjoyed a long and enormously successful career as a lawyer. He served at various times as President of the Bar Association of the City of New York (1922–24); President of the Harvard Law School Association of New York; President of the Harvard Alumni Association; President of the Harvard Club of New York; member of the Harvard Corporation (the first Roman Catholic to be appointed); member and Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents; founder and vice President of the executive committee of the American Law Institute; Commander of the Crown in Italy, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France; Knight of Malta of the Catholic Church; and Trustee of the City College of New York. In 1888 he joined with William D. Hornblower in law practice as Hornblower and Byrne, the founding firm of what became Wilkie, Farr & Gallagher. In 1917, before he left for service in World War I, Byrne endowed the Byrne Professorship of Administrative Law at Harvard Law School, which was occupied from 1924 to 1939 by Byrne’s former legal associate, Felix Frankfurter. Byrne was a vocal supporter of the admission of women to the Bar Association of New York, and sponsored the motion which finally succeeded in 1932.
James Byrne was a lawyer’s lawyer and an active participant in civic and religious life. He and his wife were also connoisseurs of fine living. In 1906, they hired Grosvernor Atterbury (architect for Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, New York) to design an estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island, which they sold in to William R. Coe in 1913. Coe was the brother-in-law of a neighbor at the Marguery, Roger Huddleston, Jr. (The property is now the site of the Planting Fields Arburetum.) In 1926, the couple purchased Guy’s Cliff, an estate overlooking Frenchman’s Bay on Mount Desert Island, Maine. They hired Guy Lowell (architect of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), to make renovations, and, in 1928, commissioned Beatrix Farrand, a landscape architect, to design a terraced garden similar to the one she created for Dunbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.
The window grate, commissioned by Helen and James Byrne for their apartment at the Marguery, bear witness to the high degree of success and esteem that Hunt Diederich had achieved by the end of the second decade of the 20th century. Window grates may seem a small matter in a life of opulence, but they reflect the care and taste of people who believed in choosing the best, consistently and down to the last detail. Diederich’s grates are an example of the power of decorative-arts objects to bring beauty and cheer into the rhythm of everyday life. They become old friends, a piece of the fabric of life, and have been valued as such, remaining with descendants of the Byrne family through the years.