February 17, 2016

Staten Island's Tibetan Gem

From the sleepy, residential Lighthouse Hill neighborhood street, the estate known as the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art is only distinguishable by its protective fieldstone wall. But just cross the threshold and you are worlds away.

Featuring objects from Tibet, Nepal, northern China, Mongolia, and even Southeast Asia, this hidden gem is quickly approaching 70 years of Tibetan art exhibition and education. But the intrigue of this museum lies not only in its unlikely Staten Island, New York location, but also with its founder; Jacques Marchais was a child actress from Ohio born to a father who desired a boy—so much so that she was given the male moniker Jacques.

After settling in Manhattan in 1916, Marchais quickly surrounded herself with like-minded friends equally interested in art and Buddhism. She soon began collecting Tibetan art though she was likely first exposed to the culture as a child due to a collection of bronze figurines passed down from her merchant great-grandfather. By 1938 she and husband Harry Klauber had opened the Jacques Marchais Gallery to feature the various artifacts she had cultivated from monasteries throughout the region. The couple soon decided to purchase property in the farmland of Staten Island.

Designed by Marchais and constructed in 1947, the historic buildings of the Museum of Tibetan Art represent the first Himalayan style architecture built in the United States, in addition to being the first museum dedicated to Tibetan art. Today the museum features Tibetan and Himalayan art from Marchais’ collection as well as surrounding gardens featuring a fish pond, meditation cells, and original paintings.

Inspired by the monastic complexes the structure hopes to celebrate and evoke, the estate was originally situated on three acres of land. The two single-story main structures were built to accommodate a library and museum. The museum estate was named to the National Register in 2008.

Portrait of Jacques Marchais sitting with her artifacts

photo by: Museum of Tibetan Art

Jacques Marchais poses with some of her artifacts.

Though Marchais never had the opportunity to travel to Tibet herself, visitors are constantly surprised by the authenticity of the estate and its artifacts. One visitor writes, "The museum is beautiful, solid, and tranquil. The collection of artifacts on display are incredibly beautiful and it's good to see such a variety of Tibetan implements and imagery on display. It's probably one of the best kept secrets on Staten Island."

The Museum is open Wednesday-Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. with guided and group tours available by appointment. Every Sunday at 2 p.m. the museums shows a film by a Tibetan filmmaker or about Tibet. For special events, check the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art website.

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Katharine Keane is a former editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

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