Painters and sculptors in Manhattan at the turn of the last century faced a problem. There was little residential space available that provided sufficient northern light for them to work, or with adequate facilities to exhibit their art. Artist V. V. Sewell complained in 1903 “People have no conception of how difficult it is for one to find a suitable studio in New York.”
In order to solve the problem, at least for themselves, a group of established artists formed the Gainsborough Corporation with portrait painter August Franzen as president. Their purpose was to build an artist’s cooperative studio building. The name came, most likely, from Franzen himself who admitted that Gainsborough’s work was a model for his own.
Included in the group were Elliott Daingerfield, vice president, well known for his dream-like landscapes; Colin Campbell Cooper, treasurer, who did portraits and landscapes; and Barron Collier, secretary, who was the lone non-artistic member and who most likely provided the financial leadership.
Central Park South was a perfect location for the intended studio. Facing the park, the artists were guaranteed that their northerly light would never be blocked by construction. The posh Plaza Hotel was completed in 1907, giving the neighborhood added prestige; and the American Fine Arts Society Building was a mere two blocks to the south.
The cooperative purchased and demolished the home of millionaire Walter E Delabarre at 222 Central Park South in 1907. The group commissioned Charles W. Buckham to design their studios. Buckham was an astute choice, the architect having innovated the concept of duplex apartment buildings.
He was given the task of designing a building appropriate to the status of well-established, successful artists while providing them with substantial light and space. Because only the Central Park façade would receive the flooding northern sunlight; the rear of the building would be reserved for rental apartments.
The Gainsborough Studios in 1909, the year after completion
Completed in 1908, the result was two duplex cooperative studios on each floor facing Central Park, and four single rental apartments to each southern floor. Because apartment buildings were restricted by law to be no more than one and a half times as high as the width of the street, the plans were filed under “hotel” to circumvent the restriction. Therefore a common kitchen and dining room were included and kitchen facilities in the apartments kept at a minimum. The artists enjoyed 18-foot ceilings, mahogany and oak woodwork, built-in cabinets with leaded glass doors and art tiled fireplaces.
Residents had use of a “ladies’ reception, package and telephone room, as well as a restaurant on the ground floor.” A central vacuum cleaner system, laundry room and storage room added to the conveniences.
It is the lavish ornamentation of the Gainsborough, however, that stands out today. A remarkable transition from Victorian to Edwardian styles, the lower levels exhibit traditional sculptural decoration while the upper floors explode in Arts and Crafts-style tilework.
Photo by Enric Archivell
Separating the first and second floors was a superb terra cotta frieze executed by sculptor Isidore Konti, a friend of both Daingerfield and Franzen. Titled “A Festival Procession of the Arts,” it depicts in classical style people from children to the elderly offering gifts to the altar of the arts. Helen W. Henderson, in 1917, described it as the “great charm of the building.”
Centered above the entrance was a carved painter’s palette on which a large bust of Thomas Gainsborough sat in a classical niche.
Each of the large, two-story studio windows surrounded a Roman-style pseudo doorway filled with stone quatrefoils and fronted by small ornate, wrought iron balconies.
From the sixth story upwards, the façade bursts in a kaleidoscope of geometric, colorful glazed tiles produced at the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Henry Mercer, the factory's owner, devoted much of his life to researching and rediscovering the process of 18th Century German pottery and tile-making. Above, rather than a cornice which would theoretically lessen light, the building is finished with a stone corbel of shells.
The Gainsborough attracted esteemed artists and in 1912, in addition to the founding group, residents included Montague Flagg, Edward Potthast, Robert MacCameron, Frederick Crane, Content Johnson, and Albert L. Groll. That year, on August 28, a fire broke out in the Colorado Boarding and Livery Stables on 58th Street, directly to the rear. Although there was a 12-foot alley separating the buildings, the “artist tenants of the studios were awaked by the crash of glass in their rear windows, due to the heat. Women hastily slipped on opera cloaks over their night dresses and hurried to the elevators” as reported in The New York Times the next morning.
Although the building was not seriously damaged, it “was scorched.”
Over the years the Gainsborough was home to other celebrated figures such as renowned photographer Erwin Blumenfeld; portrait painter and president of the National Academ of Design, Dewitt Lockman; author Thomas Alibone Janvier and Barbara Howard, daughter of Hollywood mogul Jack Warner.
By the 1950’s the building’s residents tired of the Arts and Crafts décor and hired interior designer Donald Deskey to remodel the lobby and entrance. Deskey removed the decorative iron entrance doors with aluminum ones and stripped out the period detailing. Around that time the ornamental balconies were removed.
Thirty years later, however, the corporation reversed itself and in 1981 spent $100,000 to restore the lobby and reconstruct the iron doors based on early photographs.
In 1988 under the guidance of architect and resident Tod Williams, an exterior restoration was initiated at a cost of over $1 million. New tiles were made to replace those too damaged to salvage and the Konti’s ornate frieze and the bust of Gainsborough were removed and replicated. The window balconies were not returned.
The Gainsborough Studios was landmarked in February 1988, The Landmarks Preservation Commission calling it “an unusual building, well-adapted and suitably decorated for its specific purpose.”