In 1947, a Life magazine headline read: “New York Lamasery: a new Tibetan temple bewilders Staten Island.”
An American woman, Jacques Marchais -- a pioneer collector and respected expert on Tibetan art -- had created a uniquely peaceful museum. Nestled into the side of Lighthouse Hill, one of the highest points on the eastern seaboard, Marchais had designed a small complex of fieldstone buildings and gardens resembling a rustic Tibetan mountain monastery; she conceived of this as a cultural center, a bridge between Tibet and the United States.
Although her project clearly dumbfounded the locals, Marchais had garnered national attention for its launch. She represented one of a small, but growing group of Westerners who had become entranced with Tibet.
When global politics cast remote Tibet into worldwide view in the early twentieth century, this spurred Western interest in Tibetan culture. The romantic idea of Tibet -- that somewhere there existed a culture based on spiritual enlightenment rather than industrial production or colonial expansion -- was irresistibly attractive to many who were disillusioned in the West, particularly by the devastations of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II.
Marchais was at the forefront of her time in recognizing the value of Tibetan culture to the treasury of human knowledge, and she made good on her aspiration that, “If I could give the world something that would be uplifting and a genuine help, perhaps, I should try.”
Marchais made a significant contribution to the growing interest in Himalayan art and Buddhist philosophy in the United States during the early twentieth century with the overall goal of broadening intercultural dialogue as a means to developing tolerance and international peace.
While Marchais had a specific interest in Tibetan Buddhism, she continually emphasized the importance of open-mindedness toward all religions. She explained, “in no way am I prejudiced for or against the various religions of the world. In my eyes, they are all good and certainly lead to the same ultimate goal, being the teachings of the Vedas, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, or Mohammed… One of our laws should be the tolerance of all religions and compassion for all their errors.”
Marchais’ effort, from 1921 to 1948, engaging Buddhism, forming a collection of Himalayan art, and constructing a miniature version of the Potala of Lhasa, the historic residence of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, is a poignant reflection of the international phase of Western Buddhism, characterized by changes and new interpretations brought about in adapting Buddhist teachings and practices to modernity.
In my upcoming talk at The New York Public Library, in connection with the exhibition, Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, I will discuss the scope of Marchais’ life, from her youth as a vaudeville child actress in the late nineteenth century, to a young woman exploring progressive social and spiritual movements in Greenwich Village in the 1920s (Theosophy, spiritualism, socialism), as an art collector who went on to open and manage an Asian art gallery in the 1930s, to a visionary site designer with the aspiration of creating an inspiring urban retreat.
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Sarah Johnson is the the former Curator at Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. Her lecture, "Jacques Marchais' Passion for Tibet: Her Monastery Museum and the Beginnings of American Buddhism," will take place at the Mid-Manhattan Library on December 9 at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.