Jacques Marchais: HERStory - The visionary behind Staten Island’s Shangri-la
Updated: May 19, 2022
Jacques Marchais, (1887-1948): Jacques Marchais Coblentz was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1887. According to Marchais, her father John Coblentz chose the male name, ‘Jacques Marchais’ – a family name of importance to him before her birth, and did not change it to the feminine form of Jacqueline after she was born. Her father died when she was a small child.
Jacques Marchais was a precocious child and her mother, Margaret Norman Coblentz, put her on the stage as a child elocutionist. She used the stage names Edna Coblentz and Edna Norman in order to avoid confusion of her “masculine” name and used her earnings to support herself and her mother. Her acting career began in the Midwest and at the age of 16, she was cast in a Boston production of George Ade’s play, “Peggy From Paris,” where she met her first husband, Brookings Montgomery. They eloped and had three children, two daughters, Edna May and Jayne, and a son, Brookings, Jr. The marriage was short-lived and the children went to live with their paternal grandparents in St. Louis, MO. In 1916, she relocated to New York City to support herself as an actress, and resumed using the name, Jacques Marchais.
While in New York, she surrounded herself with a circle of friends that shared a common interest in art, spirituality and Buddhism. In 1920, Jacques Marchais married Harry Klauber (1885-1948), a Brooklyn-born entrepreneur in the chemical business. Jacques and Harry moved to Staten Island in 1921, settled on Lighthouse Hill, where according to her diary they could have “a farm within commuting distance of Manhattan” and she began to collect Tibetan art.
Jacques Marchais was one of the earliest collectors of Tibetan art in the United States. She wrote in her journals that her first exposure to anything Tibetan was a collection of bronze figurines depicting *Bon deities that were passed down in her family from her great grandfather, John Joseph Norman, a merchant from Philadelphia who was active in the tea trade. As a young girl, she played with the figurines as if they were toys. (*) Bon was the religion in Tibet that predates Buddhism.
Upon the death of her mother in 1927, she rediscovered the figurines among her mother’s belongings and this propelled her to delve deeper into their meaning. This led her to “deep research and constant study” in “Tibetan art – its country—its people and its religion.”
Jacques Marchais developed this affinity for Tibetan culture in the late 1920s, and thoroughly studied all she could. She believed she “was more or less acting as magnet in drawing East Indian and Tibetan deities and ritual objects.” After viewing an exhibit dedicated to the Chinese Lama Temple Potala of Jehol, at the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, she became particularly inspired to enhance her collection of Tibetan artifacts and share her knowledge with the world.
In 1938, she opened the Jacques Marchais Gallery to exhibit art from the relatively unknown cultures of East India and Tibet. The collection ranged from extravagant artwork and thangkas upon the wall to carved wood furniture and light fixtures. Statues and sculptures lined the shelves, as Marchais proudly showcased her acquisitions to groups and individuals alike. Many of these artifacts only became available to collectors like Marchais from 1911 – 1950, due to heightened political activity in the region. She desired to impact humanity on a larger scale and used the gallery as a “stepping stone” to building the Museum.
Although she never traveled to Tibet, she acquired items through auctions and estate sales. Marchais would often keep the best pieces for herself and sell other objects in the gallery as a means to continuously build her collection. She was committed to sharing her knowledge of Tibet with the world.
In her lifetime, Jacques Marchais amassed a collection of over one thousand objects. The collection includes sculpture, ritual objects, musical instruments, thangkas or scroll paintings and furniture. The objects are primarily from Tibet, Nepal, northern China, and Mongolia, and a few items are from Southeast Asia.
Shangri-La on Staten Island: Inspired by a photograph of the Potala at Lhasa, the historic seat of the Dalai Lamas, Jacques Marchais designed a complex of buildings that resembled a small Himalayan monastery. The site included a library for her collection of books about Tibet, small meditation cells, and what she described as a “chanting hall” to house her collection of Tibetan art. The library and museum buildings feature characteristic details of Himalayan architecture including a flat roof, capped with a four-sided pagoda, trapezoidal-shaped windows and doors with cross-cut wood posts and slate caps. The natural fieldstone buildings were constructed by Joseph Primiano, a local, Italian, stone mason. On Sunday mornings they would drive around Staten Island choosing the boulders and stones that would become the building. Long stone staircases, pagoda shaped roofs, and trapezoidal windows under slate overhangs offered a visual aspect rarely seen in the West. The Center would feature a library, a “replica of a chanting hall” and a terraced garden.
The Museum is surrounded by terraced gardens with a gold fish and lotus pond. Jacques Marchais called her landscape design the ‘Samadhi Garden.’ Samadhi is a Sanskrit word meaning a deep level of concentrated meditation. The buildings and the landscape design created an environment where the art could be viewed in a contextual setting. When the Museum officially opened on October 5, 1947, the event was featured in LIFE magazine.
Unfortunately Jacques Marchais died in February 1948, merely four months after the Museum’s opening. Her vigorous work and extravagant collection continue to emphasize the value of Tibetan culture.