Although the Cybis porcelain studio has spent most of its ‘life’ in New Jersey, its present location is actually the fourth in its history. Three of those four studio locations still physically exist today, decades after some of the finest American art porcelain was first produced within them.
The Steinway Mansion in Astoria, NY: 1940-1942
After completing the 1939 New York Worlds Fair mural commission, Boleslaw and Marja Cybis remained in the United States and sought a place in which to live and create a ceramics studio. They were able to rent space in part of the 27-room mansion located at 1833 41st Street in Astoria, NY which is a Queens County suburb of New York City. The mansion was built in the late 1850s by the Steinway family (of piano fame) as a summer place, and has always been known as the Steinway Mansion. In 1924 the mansion was purchased by the Halberian family and it was they who rented the space to the Cybises.
The Cybises were not the only tenants in the mansion. The 1940 Census taken at that address shows that it was occupied by Jack Halberian (the owner), his wife Shamrie, and their children Michael and Rose Marie. In addition there were eight lodgers (tenants): tailor Fred Vogt (born in Germany) and his wife Louise; fruit seller Kurt Olk, also from Germany; auto mechanic Thomas Quinn (born in Ireland) and wife Eileen; James Fiesta, who was unemployed; and Boleslow [sic] Cybis from Poland, and wife Marja. Cybis’s occupation is given as “artist” but no occupation for Marja. So there were a dozen people living in the Steinway Mansion and/or its buildings during 1940 and this is where Cybis had his first studio.
This photo shows a view of the mansion circa 1939-1940 when Cybis was there. It’s unclear whether the Cybis studio and/or living quarters were located inside the actual house, or in an outbuilding such as a greenhouse or cottage. In 1967 the Steinway Mansion was declared a New York City historic landmark.
The mansion continued in the ownership of the Halberian family until May 2014, although over the years falling into disrepair – one reason why it took many years for a buyer to be found. The photos above show how the original acre of wooded property is now surrounded by commercial construction. (More information about the mansion and its history can be found at the Friends of the Steinway Mansion website.)
Upon moving to the mansion in 1940, Boleslaw and Marja set up their studio under the name of “Cybis Art Productions” which was fitting because they, and the small côterie of artists who joined them, worked in a varied range of mediums: charcoal drawings, oil paintings, various forms of clay, and even paper-mâché.
The great musician and Polish statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski came to the Steinway mansion studio to sit for his portrait shortly after Cybis set up his studio there, but died before the work could be completed. It’s possible that the two men knew each other from their Warsaw days. No one knows what happened to the unfinished portrait.
There is a puzzling statement in the 1971 museum exhibit catalog Cybis in Retrospect, to which I have found no reference in any other literature. While it confirms that the Cybis’ first USA studio was indeed at the Steinway Mansion, it goes on to say “When success and increased production forced larger quarters, [the] Cybis Studio moved to a new location in town and produced papka in limited quantities….He produced by hand and looked to Trenton, New Jersey, for the next studio location.”
I could find no evidence for a Cybis studio location having been elsewhere in Astoria. However, I have to date been unable to access any 1941 City Directory for Astoria and/or Queens County; such a directory may possibly have included an entry for the name Cybis other than at the Steinway Mansion as a lodger.
Church Street, Trenton, NJ: 1942-early 1969
Most Cybis collectors know that the studio spent almost 30 years at the “Church Street carriage house” but do not realize that this location included not just one building but three; although close to each other they were not physically connected. These were located at #306 and (seemingly) #301 Church Street. The building referred to in Cybis literature as “the carriage house” was at 306 Church Street and was the building utilized by them first; I’m deliberately saying “utilized” because Cybis rented the location rather than buying it outright – at least at first, and it’s unknown whether any of the Church Street buildings were ever actually bought by Cybis.
In order to reach a larger retail audience Cybis needed additional capital and business expertise; he found both in two investors, Harry Wilson and Harvey Greenburg, and the trio applied for a business license under the name of the Cordey China Company. The November 1942 corporate application describes the intent of the company being to “manufacture and deal in all kinds of pottery, terracotta and fire-clay products, as well as all kinds of china, glassware, crockery, metalware, leather goods, cutlery, gold and silver ware, wooden items, and all kinds of decorative and art objects.” However, as shown in 1940s Cybis Retail, items were also being produced under the Cybis brand as well as Cordey…and in the same Church Street location(s) as well.
Cybis in Retrospect describes 306 Church Street in this way:
..the building that housed Cybis was one of retiring anonymity. Tucked away on the narrow street of a forgotten era in Trenton, New Jersey, its slumbering red brick façade resembled nothing so much as the rear of an old carriage house which, in fact, the original building was. The artists worked in rooms where sculptured friezes reminiscent of Greek mythology crowded the cornices and archways. The white Hands of Time encircled a sculptured clock-face above a doorway.
Indeed the photos above bear out that description as well as this one:
From a cornice, Echo gestured a beckoning arm, and mystical heads of maidens crowded an archway. Along one front, the lidded faces of Lost Souls surrounded torsos with curiously beaked heads representing Fire, Air and Earth – all of them sculptured by the artist who gave the studio its name.
Those same “mystical maidens’ heads” shown in the last photo were sold (with some added elements) at auction in 2013; see the 1940s Cybis post for actual photos of them, and also of more of these architectural elements that were utilized in a 1982 Cybis party stage display at Brielle Galleries.
A one-word description of the carriage-house studio would surely be “overcrowded”; to say that space was at a premium would be an understatement. In addition to the artists’ worktables, there were huge kilns that when in operation generated an equally huge amount of heat; porcelain is typically fired at about 2500 degrees Fahrenheit (1400 degrees Celsius). Imagine that going on in mid-July! There was so little extra room that people often had to sidle between tables and equipment because there simply wasn’t room to walk straight ahead in a normal fashion. The only heating was provided by the kilns, and there was no mechanical cooling system either.
Between the addition of new artisans as well as the significant uptick in overall demand, the available space became ever more and more cramped. The spinoff/sale of the Cordey business to Boleslaw Cybis’ partners during the mid or late 1950s (Cybis is still shown as “President” of Cordey on a court case brought in 1953, though it’s not known how much longer he remained so) helped a bit, but some Cordey artisans remained on staff as employees of Cybis.
The actual lot at 306 Church Street was narrow but deep, and there were actually two structures on it, the old brick carriage house being the one closer to the road. Behind the carriage house and separated from it by a grassy area was the second building which had formerly been used as a bottling plant; because of this, the open area surrounding it was littered with pieces of broken bottles and glass which was quite the project to clean up. It’s not known whether this second building was rented and/or used while Boleslaw Cybis was alive, but after Marilyn Chorlton took over the studio it became the home of the moldmaking operation. It also contained the workspaces of the studio’s main artists, including Marylin Chorlton and Lynn Klockner Brown who are shown in the second photo examinining Lynn’s Magnolia model.
Almost directly across the street from 306 was the third Cybis building, a large garage which was used as a warehouse and likely numbered 301. This location is now an auto body shop.
This photo shows 306 Church Street as it is today; it has been vacant and derelict for a number of years. The current Google Earth photo shows no indication of the second building in the rear but instead this single building which is much longer (deeper) than any of the other structures on that street. Given its appearance in this photo — with brick only on the front section — it’s quite possible that a subsequent owner joined both buildings together under a common roof, which the present structure does have.
There was also another Cybis location established after the Chorltons took over the studio. With the launch of the ‘modern’ studio they needed space for an office staff, and there was simply no room to spare in the Church Street buildings. So some office space was rented on West State Street, about two blocks away from the studio and just over the Prospect Street Bridge. Anything that was not actual hands-on production (i.e., employee interviews, payroll paperwork, sales, advertising, and marketing) took place in this office until the studio moved to its new location in 1969.
38 Greenhouse Drive, Princeton, NJ: 1943-1958
When Boleslaw and Marja Cybis relocated to New Jersey they naturally cast about for a place to live which would be able to also accommodate a home studio. In nearby Princeton ‘Drumthwacket’, the historic estate of 19th century industrialist Moses Pyne, had recently been purchased by Russian scientist Abraham Spanel (whose invention of latex evolved into the Playtex Corporation.) The property included the mansion and twelve surrounding acres. The remaining land, located to the rear, was subdivided into building lots and a new street was created so that they could be accessed from Mercer Road instead via the Spanel estate’s frontage. Because these lots were originally the site of several of Drumthwacket’s greenhouses, the new street was named Greenhouse Drive. Boleslaw Cybis purchased one of these lots and set about having a house, studio, and gardens constructed on it. According to Cybis in Retrospect these were all completed in 1944.
That same catalog describes the Cybis home/studio and property in some detail, although it doesn’t make a clear distinction between the property that belonged to Cybis and that of the adjoining Drumthwacket estate:
The Cybis home, or sleeping quarters, drowsed between the studio and the greenhouse. Perched on a sloping hill, the studio dominated, overlooking a large Florentine garden and commanding a panoramic view of the lake and modest waterfall.
The “large Florentine garden” would have been the one belonging to Drumthwacket, which also contained the lake and waterfall. Those gardens have since been restored, and the estate is now the official residence of the Governor of New Jersey.
More from Retrospect:
On one side of the wall near the studio Cybis painted a mural of African natives. On the other side of the house a huge birch grew out of a flagstone terrace. Cybis built a stage on the terrace and used it as a backdrop for changing works of art and for puppet shows where his wife Marja acted as puppeteer. She made puppet personalities of friends and neighbors and starred them in skits she wrote. ….The studio artists not only designed and made strange backgrounds, exotic costumes and eerie masks, they also acted in Cybis productions. Editing the film and synchronizing it with otherworldly music fascinated the entire group. The studio was also the scene of countless balls and masquerades.
This scenario is borne out by contemporary statements as well. Boleslaw Mastai, the antique dealer, author and famous collector in various genres, was interviewed during a 1945 exhibit of Polish paintings at the Detroit Institute of Art about Cybis, in which he said “My friends and I were co-workers in his studio and wrapped up in his many products at home… We worked on a series of masks..[and] photographed them hanging from trees or peering from bushes. We used them as decorations in the playroom for the parties.” From this it sounds as if the studio at Greenhouse Drive was probably completed earlier rather than later.
This home studio was quite elaborate, because as related in Cybis in Retrospect,
The studio, with its enormous open stone fireplace on one wall, a large tapestry on another and a handpanted carpet on the floor, was the center of activity. An old grand piano, elaborate gold rococo candlestick holders, a throne chair and antique carousel horses used for seating completed the furnishings. Cybis worked at his easel or with his camera beneath an enormous skylight in the center of the room.
The photo above, from the same publication, shows Boleslaw Cybis putting the finishing touches on a costume for one of his home/studio productions. One wonders what happened to the films that were taken during them; are they still somewhere in the studio’s archives or did they succumb to the ravages of time?
Tracing the history of the Greenhouse Drive property is rather challenging. The 1940 census having been taken before the Cybises lived there, the only other resource is old Princeton city directories. The houses were apparantly not numbered at first, or even within the first decade of ownership, because the 1954 Princeton Directory shows only Cybis, Boleslaw (Maria) artist h(ouseholder) Greenhouse dr. – M h ss (south side) Greenhouse dr 4 w Mercer rd. The directory also indicated whether the home was owned or occupied by a tenant, and whether it had a telephone! Of the seven dwellings listed on Greenhouse Drive in 1954, only four – including the Cybis home – had telephone service.
In the 1955 directory the Cybis property was finally given a number: 38. The Cybises are listed as its owners in the 1956 and 1957 directories as well. The 1958 directory does not list them at all, probably because Boleslaw Cybis had died in mid-1957. Later Princeton directories do not include a street listing section, so it’s not possible to use this method to see who bought #38 without knowing their last name.
There is no longer a parcel designated as 38 Greenhouse Drive; the house numbers go from #34 directly to #56. Number 34 was supposedly built in 1948 which more or less matches Cybis in Retrospect‘s claim that Boleslaw completed building on Greenhouse Drive in 1944; the four subdivision builds that are listed in the 1954 directory were probably all completed constructionwise in the mid to late 1940s.
What happened to the Cybis home and studio after Marja Cybis’ death in 1958? Was it demolished? And if so, when? I contacted the Princeton Building Department to ask if they had any demolition or sale records but was told that their existing records are not available “that far back.” However, an intriguing snippet from a December 1970 article in The Trentonian newspaper, written by Hazel Herman who was the staff writer for Cybis, offers this:
[Cybis made] his home in Princeton on part of what was once the old Pyne Estate. There his handiwork may still be seen in the patterned walks inset with a metal shield bearing a lion’s head, the rococo walls with their jardinieres of stone flowers, a pedestalled lioness and a sculptured Diana overlooking a miniature lake.
So it sounds as if some part of the Greenhouse Drive property still survived at that point, even though his house and studio may not have done so.
This photo shows the final resting place of Boleslaw and Marja Cybis in the Princeton Cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church. Both were interred there at the same time, on June 29, 1959 in Section 3, Block 9, Lot 19C. Initially they had been cremated and so the eventual interment in Princeton Cemetery was probably arranged by their studio heir, Marylin Chorlton, because the Cybises had no children.
At one time there was a large collection of old photographs that were taken at these three studio locations. They included pictures of studio interiors, sculptures and other designs including furniture, and work produced at the Church Street and Greenhouse Drive studios. The collection was extensive enough to fill several filing cabinets, at least during the early 1970s which was the last time they were seen. Whether they still exist and/or are still in possession of the studio is unknown but they would be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of Cybis and his studio’s work. In 1970 Joseph Chorlton deposited about ten years worth of studio records with the Syracuse (NY) University Library archives but the old photographs were probably not among them, as they are described as being “business records, correspondence, catalogs, [and] publications.” In any event they are unsorted, uncataloged, and unavailable to the general public.
The history of the present-day studio, which was first opened in 1969, is the subject of the next post.
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