High Art

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By Joseph Housley
Photography by Richard Leo Johnson

Arnold Tenenbaum stands at his living room window, watching the traffic inch across Talmadge Memorial Bridge. “In the late afternoon, it’s incandescent,” he says.

The view and the glow of the setting sun are two reasons he and his wife, Lorlee, chose their penthouse apartment at the DeSoto almost 20 years ago. Another reason was its nearly 5,000 square feet of raw space. With no limitations, their new home was a blank canvas.

Beyond a Dunbar dining table and a set of Edward Wormley Y-back chairs, a 1940s Navajo rug hangs above an antique Chinese console accented with sculpture from South Africa, Ivory Coast, France and Atlanta.

After residing for 27 years in a four-story mid-19th century Greek Revival on Jones Street, the Tenenbaums were ready for a smaller, simpler home. They waited a decade after the last of their four children moved out, until just the right place became available—a place that reminded them of where they first met: New York City.

At the time, Lorlee was there attending Sarah Lawrence, while Arnold was at Columbia’s Graduate School of Business. “I moved in with two girls from Savannah who introduced me to Arnold, and he couldn’t resist me,” Lorlee says with a laugh. Fifty-nine years later, the spirited couple remain in fond lockstep, often finishing each other’s sentences.

A David Shapiro painting was Arnold and Lorlee’s first joint purchase—they split the cost of it to celebrate their engagement in 1959.

When they purchased their DeSoto apartment, the top four floors were being reimagined as high-rise residential space. Choosing the northeastern corner of the building, the Tenenbaums brought in an architect from Atlanta and an interior designer from New York to help them achieve their vision. In less than a year, the open space was converted: four bedrooms, five baths, spacious living and dining areas and two offices—one with enough books to populate a library wing.

And then there’s the art. Important works by modern and contemporary masters including Chagall, Miró, Beuys, Pistoletto and Warhol anoint the apartment’s walls, commanding every room. Remarkable art is everywhere—a letterform piece by Jack Pierson, a portfolio of screen prints by R.B. Kitaj, a lead intaglio by Louise Nevelson, a perforated work by Lucio Fontana, a linocut by Kara Walker. These pieces are complemented by museum-quality midcentury furnishings: a Mies van der Rohe daybed and chairs, a Thonet coatrack, a Royère mirror and sconces. Yet it’s their vast collection of Native American pottery, Navajo textiles and oil paintings that the Tenenbaums treasure the most.

A mirrored Heather McGill sculpture adorns an upholstered wall in the master bedroom— and on the coffee table, assorted Marcus Kenney works were a birthday gift to Lorlee

A longtime destination for artists, Santa Fe, New Mexico is the Tenenbaums’ second love after Savannah. On an early visit, Arnold bought his first piece of pottery, a fired-black Native American wedding vase. He and Lorlee eventually purchased a second home there, where they reside half the year. As Arnold puts it: “Santa Fe sort of bled into Savannah. For us, they’re reasonably indistinguishable.”

In both cities, the Tenenbaums nurture artists through advocacy and philanthropy. In Savannah, Arnold has championed the Savannah College of Art and Design as a member of its Board of Visitors, and elevated the cultural landscape by helping raise the capital to build the Jepson Center for the Arts. In Santa Fe, he and Lorlee are closely involved with the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts and the Museum of New Mexico Foundation. Seeing as the Tenenbaum children—Ann, Brian, Margot and Alison—grew up in a house full of Chinese and Pre-Columbian antiques, modernist sculptures and abstract paintings, it comes as no surprise that they embrace art and creativity in their adult lives. Their eldest daughter, Ann, is a world-class collector in her own right, and serves on the board at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Talmadge Bridge, as seen from the dining room window

“Whenever we traveled—and we traveled with the kids all over the world— museums were always the first places we went,” Arnold says. For the Tenenbaums, art is not mere decoration—it’s a record of experience and a matter of principle. Their haute-bohemian lifestyle certainly left an impression on Luke and Owen Wilson, who remain good friends with their son. Owen borrowed the family name when he collaborated with Wes Anderson on the iconic film, The Royal Tenenbaums. The movie brought Arnold and Lorlee a level of notoriety that has followed them for 16 years, but Arnold is quick to point out the differences between film and fact.

“There are a few in-jokes, subtle references to our family,” Arnold explains. “It’s a good movie, but it’s not about us.”

Two Paul Pletka works above a collection of Native American pottery, Italian and German art glass, and a piece by Dale Chihuly

In the dining room, Lorlee rests at an oblong walnut table. A wall of glass frames the city from Liberty Street northward to the river, and beyond to South Carolina.

“Sitting here, looking out, we see the ships coming in,” she says.

The western sky darkens in shades of deep blue and purple, the lights of passing traffic blurring through a rare evening mist. A warmth blankets the apartment, spreading across the walls up to the eighteen-and-a-half foot ceilings. Lorlee looks over her shoulder, taking in the whole of their home. “When we moved here,” she says, “we knew that we would live differently.”

An early Kara Walker work alongside an Ed Moulthrop wood vessel


Homeowners: Arnold and Lorlee Tenenbaum

Year purchased: 1998

Year built: 1999

Square footage: 5,000

Accommodations: 4 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms

Architect: Richard Rekau, Atlanta

Interior designer: Pierce Allen, New York

Contractor: Mark Fitzpatrick, J.T. Turner Construction Co. (now with MJ Fitzpatrick & Company)

Art: Joseph Beuys, Marc Chagall, Lucio Fontana, R. B. Kitaj, Joan Miró, Louise Nevelson, Jack Pierson, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Kara Walker, Andy Warhol and Native American pottery and Navajo textiles

Furniture: Dunbar, Thonet, Jean Royère, Mies van der Rohe, George Nakashima