During the construction of International House in 1923-1924, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller stewarded the design of what was then known as “The Duncan Pfyfe Room,” so named for its period furnishings. It was part of her goal to create a place that would “serve as an American Colonial home—on an heroic scale necessarily—to accommodate this family of hundreds, yet unmistakably as a home.”
Mrs. Rockefeller’s choice of an exceptional 19th century wall covering led generations of I-House Residents to refer to this room as “The Mural Room.” Long one of the most gracious and refined spaces in the House, the room has served as the principal reception space for such distinguished visitors as W. H. Auden, Eleanor Roosevelt and Emperor Akihito of Japan.
With some original furnishings in the Duncan Pfyfe style remaining, the room features four sets of French windows overlooking Sakura Park and Riverside Drive. Framed by wainscotting and a classically carved cornice, the “murals” are the star of this space, which also features a plain fireplace of black marble, topped by a Federal-style guilt-framed mirror, and a Waterford chandelier.
The wallpaper we see is original to the room and was hand-blocked in the 19th century by Zuber & Cie. Founded in 1797 in Rixheim, France, Zuber continues to block print their signature panoramic motifs using the original engraved wood blocks. The pattern in the Soros Room was first introduced in 1843 and is called “Vues de l’Amerique du Nord.” It depicts scenes of early American life including a Native American dance in Virginia, the thundering water at Niagara Falls, strollers on the Palisades of New York, military drills at West Point, and shipping docks in Boston Harbor. The pattern was designed during a period of the July Monarchy through a distinctly French lens, in which an idealized North America represented a future France.
Most famously, this particular wallpaper was selected by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the restoration of the Diplomatic Room of the White House in 1961 and is also featured in the formal dining room of the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion.
In 2005, New York interior designer Ralph Harvard, an architectural historian and preservationist, was selected to oversee the renovation of the room. Consulting archival photographs, and calling upon his scholarly knowledge of period styles, Harvard recommended refurbishing rather than replacing the historic Zuber murals. Artist Tom Donahue was engaged to restore the murals, removing the varnish, touching up damaged areas of the panels, and painting a scene above and around the fireplace to match everything else.
Original furnishings were carefully restored, and new pieces selected. Harvard followed his customary approach of integrating interior design with architecture, followed by carefully choosing paint colors and finishes, comfortable upholstered furniture, and a variety of fabrics, carpets, and antiques.
The renovations were made possible through a generous gift by International House Alumni Daisy and Paul Soros, who met at I-House as Residents in 1950 and were married the following year.
In 2016 International House continued its stewardship of the Soros Room by replacing the traditional French windows and adding modern glass and casements to protect the furnishings and ensure their longevity.
These restorations, along with regular maintenance by I-House Facilities staff, have ensured the space retains its original splendor, as the Soros Room continues to serve as an elegant receiving room for dignitaries, world leaders and other notable visitors who come to share their insights and provide inspiration for I-House Residents–the next generation of globally minded leaders.