Inside the Home and Studio of a 19th-Century Artist Power Couple
Thomas and Mary Nimmo Moran resided in this quirky, now-restored building in East Hampton, New York
By the time Thomas Moran turned 40 in 1877, any American who followed visual art knew his work. His majestic paintings of Western landscapes introduced many to the epic grandeur of places such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon; he even had a mountain named for him, Mount Moran, in the Teton Range of Wyoming. His wife, Mary Nimmo Moran, had also established herself as a respected artist, and the couple had three children. But they still hadn’t found a place to set down permanent roots, having moved from their adopted hometown of Philadelphia to Paris and later to Newark, New Jersey.
That changed in 1878, when they followed the suggestion of a friend to visit the East End of Long Island. The quiet village of East Hampton, New York, made an impression on the Morans, its gently rolling fields evoking their native Scotland (Mary) and England (Thomas). They rented space there for several summers before finally buying two-thirds of an acre on Main Street in 1883. Thomas built a fanciful house known as The Studio on the property, cobbling together salvaged pieces of New York City buildings to create a structure later described by a United States Interior Department historian as “rather eccentric.”
The Morans had clearly found the place they wanted to be for both life and work. They made fast friends with the townspeople and played a key role in attracting other artists to East Hampton. Typically, they resided in their turreted house there from May to November and spent the winters in New York City. Thomas used the residence’s 40-foot-long main room as his painting studio, and Mary worked on her etchings outdoors. In Venice the couple acquired a gondola (which reportedly once belonged to poet Robert Browning) and used it for family excursions on nearby Hook Pond.
Today the East Hampton Historical Society operates the Thomas & Mary Nimmo Moran Studio, which underwent a restoration completed around 2017. Smaller projects, such as replicating the original wallcoverings in 2021 and returning a Moran painting to its original spot above the fireplace in 2022, continue. The site is a member of the National Trust program Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios, and it is open for guided tours each summer and fall.
The Morans met in the Philadelphia area circa 1858, when Mary was about 16 and Thomas around 21. Both sociable children of weavers who had immigrated to the city from the British Isles, they married in 1863. Inspired by his older brother Edward, a well-known marine painter, as well as the writings of John Ruskin and the work of J.M.W. Turner, Thomas embarked on a career as a landscape painter. His reputation grew, and in 1871 he boldly asked geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden if he could accompany a federal government–sponsored expedition to the Yellowstone region of Wyoming, whose natural wonders were not yet widely known outside the 20-plus Native American communities that spent time in the area. Hayden assented, and Moran gathered $1,000 from benefactors to pay his way for the rugged, roughly two-month journey, in exchange for a promise of paintings.
The artist’s audacious gamble paid off spectacularly. Moran’s sketches and watercolors from the trip helped Hayden successfully make the case to Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant for establishing Yellowstone as the first national park in March of 1872. That summer, Moran sold a 7-by-12-foot oil painting, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), to Congress for $10,000; it is currently displayed in the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum in Washington, D.C. He would make several more trips out West, producing paintings such as Chasm of the Colorado (1873–74) and The Teton Range (1897), which today hang in the Department of the Interior Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively. A grateful Hayden named one of the Tetons’ tallest peaks for Moran, a tribute to his role in publicizing the beauty and vastness of the Western landscape.
Mary Nimmo Moran, meanwhile, ran the couple’s household, which included their children: Paul, Mary, and Ruth. Thomas had taught his wife the basics of drawing and painting, and her work was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design during the 1870s. But in 1879, just a year after the couple first visited East Hampton, she began working in the medium that would truly propel her to renown. At Thomas’ suggestion she started etching, a technique in which the artist uses a thin needle to create an image on a metal plate coated with an acid-proof varnish or wax. The plate is dipped in acid to create a grooved image ready to receive ink for printing.
According to Shannon Vittoria, assistant curator of American painting and sculpture at the Met, Mary took to etching immediately, in part because it dovetailed with her busy lifestyle. “We know that her preferred method of working was en plein air, or sketching out of doors,” Vittoria says. “This was something that she could take out of doors, on the go. There was a real flexibility and portability to the medium that I think appealed to her.”
Mary’s timing was perfect: An etching revival had already swept across Europe and was starting to reach the U.S. She became the first woman elected to the New York Etching Club and the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in London, and her prints—including her best-known pieces, Twilight, Easthampton (1880) and ’Tween the Gloaming and the Mirk (1883)—were displayed widely in the U.S. and Europe throughout the 1880s. Many of her etchings depicted intimate scenes of nature on the East End of Long Island, and they tended to create a sense of a private moment, in contrast with her husband’s dramatic, large-scale paintings. Today, museums such as the National Gallery of Art and the Met count her work among their collections.
“He had a desire to create a sense of antiquity.”Richard Barons
The Morans’ circa-1884 Studio in East Hampton epitomized their creative personalities. Thomas had already shown that he would go to great logistical lengths to make his grand artistic vision a reality, and he did the same with his design for the structure. Fascinated by buildings destined for demolition near his studio in Lower Manhattan, he salvaged items such as storefront windows, Federal period mantelpieces, and Greek Revival and Italianate newel posts. “He had a desire to create a sense of antiquity,” says Richard Barons, the East Hampton Historical Society’s former executive director. The Long Island Rail Road wouldn’t extend all the way to East Hampton for another 11 years, so Thomas would likely have had these items taken by train to Bridgehampton station, then transported by wagon the seven remaining miles to the village.
Yellow longleaf pine formed the floors and basswood paneling covered the walls of Thomas’ new studio area, the soaring first-floor space that in today’s real-estate parlance would be called a great room. “This would have been the most unique room in East Hampton in the 1880s,” says Steve Long, who currently leads the historical society. “Most old houses here have 7- or 8–foot ceilings. This will have felt like a cathedral.” Upstairs were a mezzanine, the turret room, and four simple bedrooms. Until Thomas added a small kitchen in 1887, the family took their meals at a nearby inn.
Mary designed a lush flower garden along the edge of the expansive front lawn. “Seed catalogs were booming like crazy,” says Julie Sakellariadis, former president of the Garden Club of East Hampton. “She could have been buying seeds from anywhere on the East Coast.” The Morans employed a caretaker, Montaukett tribal member George Fowler, who may have helped create the garden and likely worked with Mary to maintain it.
The color-saturated garden served as a backdrop for parties, plays, and tableaux vivants hosted by the family. “Everybody loved the Morans,” says Barons. “They were more than just visitors.” When digging up one of the house’s masonry piers during the restoration, a worker found a jar that held a letter signed and dated by 25 or so neighbors who had gathered to celebrate the start of construction. “They were very social people,” says Olivia Brooks, a volunteer tour guide for the site. “That whole studio of his became their party room. They could put an orchestra up on the mezzanine.”
Both artists found inspiration in the local landscape, creating works such as June, East Hampton (an 1895 painting by Thomas) and Old Lindens, Near Easthampton (an 1885 etching by Mary). The family’s talents extended to music: Mary sang Scottish ballads, while Thomas and son Paul played stringed instruments. Guests at their music-filled gatherings likely included many family members who were also artists. The Morans’ presence helped establish East Hampton as an art colony, setting the stage for the future arrival of 20th century artists like Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock.
Suddenly, in the late summer of 1899, Mary contracted an illness thought to have been typhoid fever. She died on September 25, an event the front page of The East Hampton Star called “a sad and irreparable loss.” A devastated Thomas found refuge in travel and work, continuing to paint until his death in 1926. Although he spent the last few years of his life in Santa Barbara, California, he chose to be buried next to his wife in East Hampton, within view of the Studio.
In 1948 the Moran family sold the East Hampton property to Condie and Elizabeth “Boots” Lamb, who lived there for decades. Boots bequeathed the house to Guild Hall, the town’s venerable museum and cultural center, which took ownership of the property in 2004. A few years later, Guild Hall gave the building to a group of locals who formed the Thomas Moran Trust and fundraised for its restoration. A $500,000 easement purchase from the East Hampton Community Preservation Fund helped, as did the growing involvement of the East Hampton Historical Society, which eventually took charge of the property. In 2012, restoration work began, spearheaded by Barons and preservation consultant Robert Hefner.
By this point, the vine-covered Studio’s walls had started to bow and buckle, much to the consternation of well-heeled area residents. The building had become a prominent eyesore. “It’s right on Main Street, so you can’t really hide it,” says Barons. Aided by more community-based grants and a slew of local contractors and craftspeople, the team spent the next five years laboring over the restoration, which ultimately cost approximately $5 million.
“What was there had such an incredible patina.”Robert Hefner
Thomas Moran had perched the building lightly on brick piers and wooden sills, two of which had sunk several inches over time. The team lifted the building, poured concrete footings for added stabilization, and rebuilt the piers and sills. Engineer Drew Bennett used composite lumber to reinforce the main structure while securing the dangerously loose turret with steel cables. The original pine shingles were deteriorating, so the carpenters used them as models for new versions made of red cedar and milled with a bandsaw to replicate the old texture. A photo provided by the Lambs’ son guided the reconstruction of an 1890 front porch that had been removed around 1949 or ’50. “That one photograph really enabled so much,” says Hefner. “A lot of times, one piece of evidence makes all the difference.”
Inside, the majority of the original longleaf yellow pine floorboards were still in place. “A third of it was rotten or not there,” says Hefner. “But what was there had such an incredible patina.” Where replacements were needed, the crew used salvaged pine that matches the old. They cleaned and re-oiled original woodwork, including salvaged stair components. Most of the windows’ glass panes were still usable; some of the window frames were remade and repainted in their historical colors, determined from a paint chip analysis.
Today, the main room still has a bewitching quality. Light filters through the pleasantly odd assortment of windows, the faint scent of old-growth pine lingers in the air, and thoughts of parties and paintings come irresistibly to mind. “This building gave you a greater sense of the personality of the owner than anything I had worked on,” says Hefner. “So much was original. You really feel it’s the 1884 building.” Reproduced Indian block-print fabric wallcoverings, added in 2021 after a painstaking replication process, provide further proof of the Morans’ eclectic tastes and deep interest in the decorative arts.
Above the fireplace hangs the Thomas Moran painting Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, which he copied from a J.M.W. Turner painting in the early 1860s as part of his classical training. (The work’s owner donated it to the historical society in 2022 so it could be returned to its former place of honor.) A few other works by the Morans hang on the walls, and several of Mary’s etchings are on display in another room. Long hopes to be able to show more works by the artists on site over the next few years.
The turret provides visitors with a bird’s-eye view of the garden, which the Garden Club of East Hampton restored and updated in 2017. Working with Riverside, Connecticut–based landscape architect Susan Cohen, the club used historic seed catalogs and a painting by Mary Nimmo Moran to make informed guesses at original plantings, including irises, phlox, and rose of Sharon.
When the Morans lived in East Hampton, their home life revolved around their family. Long is working to bolster that multigenerational aspect. Through an arrangement with the local public school district, the historical society brings schoolchildren to the site during the academic year. Under the bronze gaze of a bushy-bearded Thomas Moran bust, students learn about Western expansion and the establishment of the National Park Service, as well as subjects closer to home, like Montaukett art and culture and the modern artistic legacy of East Hampton. Long has also teamed with other Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios sites on the East End of Long Island to put on group events and tours.
The Studio’s bucolic setting amid ponds and shade trees, its hodgepodge exterior, and its atmospheric interior all contribute to its charm, but the truly essential element is the Morans themselves. They not only depicted the local landscape, but also became part of it through the productive, creatively fulfilling lives they made in the community. “I volunteer here because I love the story,” says Olivia Brooks. “It’s really them—the Moran family. They are the ones who drew me in.”
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