India House Foundation


The Birth of India House, 100 years Ago

(Portrait of Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight Elmhirst by Francois Flameng, before 1923, photographed by Bain News Service 1925, Courtesy Library of Congress)

Two influential art exhibitions opened in New York City in the early years of the twentieth century as a result of the patronage of two women of the Whitney family. One is well-known and the other largely forgotten. In 1913 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney helped fund the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the famous Armory Show, that showcased European avant-garde paintings and sculpture beside works by contemporary American artists. The Armory show challenged and changed the course of American art. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s support for the Association of American Painters and Sculptors grew into the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Gertrude’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Payne Whitney, looked to the opposite side of the globe for artistic inspiration. While travelling in China and then living with her husband in the American legation within the Forbidden City in Peking she collected Chinese porcelains, jades and painted scrolls and Buddhist, Hindu and Indo-Chinese artifacts. Once back in New York City the heiress and her diplomat husband, Willard Dickerman Straight, established the Asiatic Institute, which the New York Times in April 1913 announced was to be a museum and library “to bring people of old and new civilizations to an understanding.” The President of the Asiatic Institute was William Howard Taft, who had just left office as President of the United States. Dorothy and Willard Straight bankrolled the purchase, renovation and outfitting of a building at One Hanover Square in Manhattan’s financial district that had once been the New York Cotton Exchange, where they installed their Asian art with paintings, prints and ship models of American merchant ships. Willard Straight and James A. Farrell Sr., then President of United States Steel, spearheaded a membership campaign for a private luncheon club, India House, which opened in 1914.