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  • Ernie Smith

“The Potala of the West”Constructing the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art offers visitors the opportunity to view Tibetan and Himalayan art in a contextual setting. This was the founder’s intention and the setting remains today as intended when the Museum was established in 1945.

"If I can give the world something that would be uplifting and a genuine help, perhaps, I should try." –Jacques Marchais Letter to Kate Crane-Gartz, 1933

In 1920, Jacques Marchais and her husband, Harry Klauber, purchased a home on Lighthouse Avenue which at the time was known as Seaview Road. This home had grand views of lower Raritan Bay and was one of only three homes on the street. Jacques and Harry soon began to purchase the land adjacent to their home for what would eventually become the Jacques Marchais Center of Tibetan Art. In 1938, Jacques Marchais hired Joseph Primiano, and Italian immigrant and master stone mason to construct two buildings and design what she referred to as the “Potala of the West.” In her unpublished book, Marchais wrote, “She is building a museum to house the permanent Jacques Marchais Collection of Ritual Art. This museum, which will have a large Oriental library for research and reference attached, is to be a miniature duplicate of the Potala in the forbidden city of Lhasa. It will be richly furnished and will have all those cultural details (in true Tibetan style) which make the difference between a perfect reproduction and only an indifferent copy.” (Jacques Marchais, A Few Brief Data on the Early History of and Religion of Tibet and Tibetans. (C1940s) p. 10

"Each stone was lovingly picked by me and hauled that has gone onto its walls. And I was successful in getting it up without benefit of one architect, contractor or purchaser of the materials. I was able to prove to myself that one woman could do it if the talent was great enough and the urge and willingness to work hard was strong enough. –Jacques Marchais Diary Entry, July 27, 1945

Like a small monastic complex, the buildings were set deep into the hillside of Lighthouse Hill. They were constructed of local fieldstone and we are told by Mary Primiano Iammatteo, the daughter of the stone mason, that on Sundays when the family returned from mass, Jacques Marchais would arrive at their home in her Buick with a little cart hitched to the back. She and Joe would drive around Staten Island in search of stones that would be used for the walls. They would deliver the stones to Lighthouse Avenue and Jacques would have Joe home in time for Sunday dinner with his family. Neither Jacques Marchais nor Joe Primiano had ever traveled to Tibet, but they studied images from her collection of books to design the Center and since Jacques knew that she would never get approval for the building she had the buildings constructed and then filed the plans with the city buildings department. The building truly replicate Tibetan style architecture and the Museum Board and staff members have been told by visitors from Tibet and Dharamsala, India, that the buildings remind them of home. Both the library and Museum building feature characteristic details of Himalayan architecture including trapezoidal-shaped windows, cross cut wood posts and slate caps above doorways, and flat roofs. The center of the roof on the museum building has a four-side flat seam copper clerestory pagoda roof in a miniaturized version of the rooftops on the Potala in Lhasa, the historic seat of the Dalai Lamas. Another unique feature of the property was the construction of meditation cells. These small meditation rooms were built a level below the main buildings, and built at a time before any Tibetan monks were in the United States. In 2009, the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art received listing on both the New York State Register and National Register of Historic Places, and received this recognition for being the oldest example of Himalayan architecture in the United States.

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