Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Where Grand Buildings were Born -- No. 28 East 21st Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1871 architect Richard Morris Hunt purchased an Italianate brownstone-clad house in the fashionable Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan. Built around 1846, the wide mansion rose four floors over an English basement. A rusticated parlor-level base featured three arched openings and a broad set of entrance steps. Classical pediments graced the second story windows and heavy brackets supported the no-nonsense cornice.

Here at No. 28 East 21st Street the architect established his studio and office. Trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he had already received important commissions from wealthy New Yorkers and that year had completed his own Newport summer cottage.

Behind the quiet brownstone facade, some of the most impressive buildings in America were conceived -- photo by Alice Lum
One of Hunt’s first designs to come from the East 21st Street studio was the Tribune Building, begun in 1873—one of the city’s first skyscrapers. As years passed Hunt would not only design masterful mansions along Fifth Avenue and in Newport for families like the Vanderbilts, Astors, Belmonts and Goelets; he would be responsible for churches like the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, North Carolina; academic structures for Yale University and the Unites States Military Academy; and the base of the Statue of Liberty.

In 1878 Hunt founded The Society of Decorative Arts to provide art classes for respectable women. The society was operated from the East 21st Street mansion. The 1887 guidebook “How to Know New York City” mentioned the Society’s “classes, library and sales-rooms,” and a few years later, in 1893, “King’s Handbook of New York City” said it “has classes in fine needle-work, china-painting, fan-painting, water-colors, and other branches of art; and aims to thoroughly train women, each in one kind of decorative art.”

The heavy double entrance doors were, no doubt, part of the 1896 re-do -- photo by Alice Lum
The “sales-rooms” mentioned in the guidebook sold decorative objects created by the students. But nothing amateur was offered to the discriminating women who shopped here. In order for a hand-painted chocolate set or Japanese fan to make it to the sales floor, it had to pass inspection by a “committee of admission.”

Annually the Society would put on its highly-anticipated Easter Sale. On April 11, 1886 The New York Times reported that among items offered would be “many charming specimens of needlework. There will be also a variety of chairs, cushions, curtains, and bedspreads, and many other novelties for Easter gifts.”

The Easter Sale of 1892 reflected the Society’s increased selection of courses. There were now “Hungarian embroidery work” and a “fine display of china painted by the students.” A reporter noted that “The china display has attracted much attention, and the pieces are as a general thing remarkably well arranged.”

There were a “number of pieces of ribbon work set in Louis XVI screens,” deemed “particularly fine” by The New York Times critic, and a number of “handsome” hand-painted fans, as well as lamp shades, cushions, and sofa pillows.

The modern housewife could economically accessorize her home with the latest in domestic fashion by attending the Society sales.

Richard Morris Hunt died in 1895. He had not only produced monumental structures like the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he had founded the American Institute of Architects and the Municipal Art Society.

photo by Alice Lum
Hunt’s son, Richard Howland Hunt, took over the business. The year after her husband’s death, Catherine Clinton Howland Hunt filed for alterations to the East 21st Street house, at a cost of $5000. It was probably during this renovation that the distinctive late 19th century entrance doors were installed.

Classic brownstone Italianate pediments cap the windows.  The diamond-panes were part of the 1896 update -- photo by Alice Lum
Joseph Howland Hunt joined his brother in the business in 1901, forming Hunt & Hunt architects. From East 21st Street they would design structures such as the 69th Regiment Armory and George W. Vanderbilt’s twin marble mansions on Fifth Avenue at 51st Street.

Richard H. Hunt's studio in 1915 -- photo by The Architectural League (copyright expired)
After Joseph’s death in 1924, the office closed. The house was briefly owned by Fred H. Albee and Frederick G. Elton before being purchased by the American Rehabilitation Committee, Inc.

Little has changed on East 21st Street since the 1950s -- photo NYPL Collection
Although in the mid-20th century the mansion was home to the bookbinder supplies firm, Griffin, Campbell, Hayes, Walsh, Inc.; no major alterations were made to the façade. Then in 1980 it was converted to apartments, two to a floor. Ten years later it was again converted to eight cooperative apartments, retaining the surviving interior details like mantles and moldings.

The original iron railings have been lost and the brownstone stoop could use repair; but the house at No. 28 E 21st survives remarkably intact -- photo by Alice Lum
The unassuming brownstone is squashed between two late 19th century loft buildings but otherwise looks little changed. Within its walls much of what was once Manhattan was born.


  1. Did you see this on Curbed yesterday? http://curbed.com/archives/2011/12/12/for-sale-master-architect-richard-morris-hunts-former-studio.php

  2. No! Amazing timing! thanks for the link.

  3. New to me but just to be as accurate as possible -- according Hunt's biographer Paul R. Baker, this important American architect only maintained an office in location from 1871 to May 1877.

  4. that's interesting. Hunt & Hunt were definitely using this address after the turn of the century. thank you for that input. I'll need to research that missing time span.