By Carter B. Horsley
When I was two months old in 1940, my parents
moved from Gramercy Park to an apartment at 20 West 10th Street
Many years later, my mother told me that she
chose Tenth Street not only because it was one of the prettiest
streets in the city, but also because it had been "home"
to many of the country's greatest artists. Our neighbors in the
building included Guy Pene du Bois, a leading art critic and well-known
artist, and Louis Bouché, who occupied a large skylight
duplex in the building that formerly was rented by Hugh Ferriss,
the famous architectural draftsman.
The most famous residence on the street, of
course, was the Studio Building at No. 51, a 100-foot-wide, three-story,
red-brick structure will a short bridge access across the deep
"moat" of its basement well. The handsome, although
not pretty building was the middle of the long block and because
of its wide frontage was the block's most important individual
building. The block, however, was more distinguished by the "English"
row of brownstones, designed by James Renwick, on the south side
of the street that were united by an attractive, continuous second-story
balcony. The building my mother and I lived in was a double-wide
brownstone, closest to Fifth Avenue, and when we moved in it had
a concierge, red-carpeted stairs, and a large gilded mirror and
two staircases in the very large lobby. The concierge, Theresa
Wright, is long gone, and the larger staircase, which had been
"free-standing," has been enclosed by an apartment.
Other residents of the block, at various times,
were Mark Twain, Maurice Evans, the actor, Edward Albee, the playwright,
Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker columnist, Charles Abrams, an
urban planner and housing expert, Moira Hodgson, the food critic,
Mel Gussow, the theater critic, and Kathleen Turner, the actress.
The block, which is anchored by the Ascension Episcopal Church
on the north side at Fifth Avenue, also was noted for the Marshall
Chess Club and a very handsome women's residence with a wide front
garden. Although the eastern portion of the block contains some
of the grandest 19th Century townhouses in the Lower Fifth Avenue
area, the western third of the block was considerably less distinguished.
Nonetheless, the block has been widely regarded as one of the
most desirable in Greenwich Village along with, between Fifth
Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas, Ninth, Eleventh and Twelfth
Streets, which are more consistent, but slightly less grand.
The units in the Studio Building, which was
designed by Richard Morris Hunt, were occupied by such famous
artists as Frederick E. Church, Albert Bierstadt, Winslow Homer,
Sanford R. Gifford, John La Farge and William Merritt Chase. Indeed,
its tenant roster over the years included most of the greatest
American artists of the 19th Century, and my mother's interest
in it was such that she was shocked at the neglect into which
the reputations of the artists had fallen and began acquiring
paintings by many of its past residents, paintings that, incredibly,
were not of much value then. (Fine examples could be bought for
about $25 as late as 1951 at the nearby auction houses on University
Place and Broadway and paintings that have subsequently been widely
reproduced as masterpieces as much as $100.)
A good friend of my mother's, Ann Donohue,
lived in the building with Thomas Stevens, who painted the portrait
of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and I remember visiting their
first-floor studio and the high and wide hallways, which were
very impressive though rather mysterious because they were relatively
dark and dusty.
The building was demolished in 1956 and replaced
by the Peter Warren apartment house, a pleasant but not distinguished
red-brick apartment building designed by H. I. Feldman, with raised
plant beds along its frontage. The new building has the address
of 45 West 10th Street.
Next to the Jefferson Market Courthouse tower,
that loomed over Tenth Street on the other side of the Avenue
of the Americas, the Studio Building was the most important landmark
in Greenwich Village apart from Washington Square and its Washington
Arch and Greek-Revival townhouses fronting on the park, and some
Architecturally, its importance was not aesthetic
but historic, as it was the first building in the city and the
nation to be designed specifically for artists' studios.
Historically, however, its importance was immense
as the artistic heart of the nation in the mid- and late-19th
Century. This was so because not only did so many important artists
maintain studios and residences there, but also because it was
designed with a very large center gallery that was the site of
many exhibitions and because many of the individual artists exhibited
their own works and held "events" in their studios at
a time when art galleries and dealers had not yet sprung up all
over the city.
The guest curator of this exhibition, which
had originally been "developed" for the financially
troubled New York Historical Society, and the author of the excellent
catalogue, Dr. Annette Blaugrund, is the new director of the National
Academy, which is located at 1083 Fifth Avenue between 89th and
90th Streets and to which most 19th century artists/residents
of The Studio Building belonged.
The building was erected and opened in 1858
by James Boorman Johnston (1822-1887), whose brother, John Taylor
Johnston, became the first president of the Metropolitan Museum
of Art a few years later. "At the time, the romantic notion
of a 'brotherhood of artists' was still in the air, and the building,
with more than a score of studios, was conceived as a combination
think-tank, exhibition space and fraternity house," observed
Holland Cotter in an article in The New York Times, July 13, 1997.
(Christopher Gray also wrote a long and excellent, as usual, story
about the building and the exhibition in The New York Times, May
The design of the building, according to Dr.
Blaugrund, "was functional and eclectic, differentiating
structure from decoration." "The brick facade reflected
contemporary French neo-grec style, characterized by such classical
details as rondels and consoles but taken out of their original
contexts. The rectangular framework was demarcated by pilasters
and horizontal belt courses in contrast to the more bombastic
ornamentation and mansard roofs found in the Second Empire style
popularly used for American banks and hotels. Geometric patterns
of red brick interrupted by horizontal stringcourses of brown
sandstone between floors made legible the rational principles
of planning and design taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris,"
Originally, the facade sported two small balconies
but subsequently more were added and demand for the studios was
such that an annex was built in 1873 to the west in the same style,
but upsetting somewhat the facade's symmetry.
In its early years, the building served as
an unofficial headquarters for the second generation artists of
the Hudson River School included such artists as Worthington Whittredge,
John William Casilear, Jervis McEntee, William H. Hart, Herman
T. L. Fuechsel, Regis F. Gignoux, James R. Brevoort, Richard W.
Hubbard, Charles Herbert Moore, Homer Dodge Martin, Hendrick Dirk
Kruseman Van Elten, James A. Suydam and John Ferguson Weir.
Other famous artists who lived there were Ralph
Albert Blakelock, Martin J. Heade, John George Brown, Thomas Waterman
Wood, Enoch Wood Perry, George Herbert McCord, Edward Lamson Henry,
William Bradford, Seymour J. Guy, Maurice F. H. de Haas, Aaron
Draper Shattuck, Francis A. Silva, William Page, Julian Alden
Weir, Robert Loftus Newman, William Beard, Emanuel Leutze, John
Henry Hill, George Cochran Lambdin, William S. Haseltine and Irving
The exhibition has about 50 paintings and 100
or so photographs and artifacts from artists associated with the
building and it and the catalogue contain much fascinating material
about the city's art world in the latter half of the 19th and
early part of the 20th centuries.
As relatively plain as the building's facade
was, its interiors were exotic, especially those of Church, Bierstadt
and Chase whose far-flung travels gathered in a rich assortment
of artistic props and memorabilia.
The flamboyant and dapper Chase, who founded
his own art school in Shinnecock near Southampton, has always
been dear for the Parrish Art Museum and one of his many large
and wonderful paintings of his fabled studio in the building graces
the cover of the catalogue.
The main criticism of this show, which is very
important for its insights into a significant part of American
art history, is that the paintings included do not, by and large,
well represent the great talents that passed through and thrived
in the Studio Building. Most were selected because they could
be documented directly the building, which makes sense, but it
is unfortunate that more and better paintings could not have been
The demolition of the Studio Building was one
of New York's greatest preservation tragedies.
A few other buildings in Manhattan such as
Des Artistes on West 67th Street and the Gainsborough on Central
Park West later followed the lead of the Studio Building with
tall studio apartments, but none could match the history and traditions
of The Studio Building.