Friday, April 27, 2012

The Fanciful Artists' Row at Nos. 4 to 26 East 8th Street



photo by Alice Lum
In the mid-1830s East 8th Street north of Washington Square was lined with comfortable brick and brownstone residences of the upper-middle classes built on land owned by Sailors’ Snug Harbor.  Here well-to-do bankers and merchants lived on what was sometimes referred to as “The Row.”   Designed in the ubiquitous Federal and newly-popular Greek Revival styles, they were dignified and proper; like the families within.

By 1916 the quiet residential character of the street had changed.  The Washington Square neighborhood was rapidly becoming Manhattan’s Bohemian section as artists, poets and writers sought the picturesque atmosphere of Greenwich Village. 

That year Sailors’ Snug Harbor trust commissioned 43-year old Harvey Wiley Corbett to renovate The Row in order to make the long line of outdated houses profitable properties again.  Corbett, a Beaux Arts trained architect, was changing his approach as the 20th century dawned.  He would go on to design large Art Deco buildings, but for now he would settle for quaint.

The old houses from No. 4 to 26 East 8th Street were not razed; they were remodeled into apartments intended to lure the artistic new residents of Greenwich Village.   Inside, the opulent, spacious parlors and the wide staircases were gutted.  In their place studios and Spartan apartments were installed.

Iron balconies, inset tile and a variegated roof line created a quaint Don Quixote-type stage set -- photo by Alice Lum
But on the outside, Corbett transformed the twelve houses into a Mediterranean fantasy.  The stoops were removed and the brick and brownstone stuccoed over.  No trace of the venerable structures were discernible as arched windows, red tiled overhanging roofs, whimsical iron pseudo-balconies and inset tile work created a street scene more expected in Padua than Manhattan.

Part of the row shortly after completion.
The apartments did, indeed, attract writers and artists—Max Eastman who edited The Masses lived in No. 12 in 1917 and popular writer E. B. White who wrote for The New Yorker and was author of "Charlotte’s Web" had a duplex at No. 16 for five years starting in 1935.    In 1921, The Nation writer Harold deWolf Fuller, who wrote the scholarly work “Romeo and Juliette” lived at No. 8. 

In 1917 editor Max Eastman lived at No. 12, marked by Arts-and-Crafts hued tiles -- photo by Alice Lum
There were other, mainstream, tenants as well, of course.  Harmon Bushnell Craig was one of the first residents of No. 24.  A Harvard graduate, he joined the American Ambulance Corps during World War I.  On July 17, 1917 he was killed by a shell at Dombasle, Verdun.

Not all the tenants were working class, either.  The affluent Mrs. Gilman Robinson, widow of Dr. Robinson lived in No. 6 in 1922, the same year her daughter Barbara Paul was married in Brookline, Massachusetts.  And in No. 24 lived another wealthy widow, Mrs. Robert Hutsel whose daughter Hilda Emily married William Harold Bokum in a fashionable Grace Church wedding on October 23, 1937.

photo by Alice Lum
Of the artists who rented on The Row, perhaps the longest-lasting was abstract painter Manfred Schwartz.  The painter leased the top floor of No. 22 as his artist studio in 1948 (he lived at 555 Park Avenue).    In August 1968 Schwartz’s studio burned, destroying approximately six years of his paintings and causing what he termed “incalculable” damage.  

A row of colorful inset tiles contrasts with the white stucco -- photo by Alice Lum

Two years later, with his studio still at No. 22 after over two decades, the esteemed painter and lithographer died of cancer at University Hospital at the age of 60.

Artist and inventor Walter Houmere added to the list of celebrated tenants, living at No. 10 until his death at 82 years of age in 1977.

photo by Alice Lum

The amazing stretch of stuccoed buildings that the AIA Guide to New York City calls “a stage set” is remarkably intact nearly a century after the 1916 remodeling.  And buried deep inside are the walls of fashionable houses built nearly a century earlier.

Many thanks to reader Connie Allen for requesting this post.

3 comments:

  1. Your blog is wonderful and I frequently find myself googling the folks you mention. But Craig Bushnell Harmon was actually Harmon Bushnell Craig and would have graduated Harvard in 1919, if he had lived. He was in the American Ambulance Corps when he died, not the Army.

    John

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  2. thanks for catching that. I always appreciate it when even the smallest errors are corrected. I fixed the text. Thanks again.

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  3. Thanks for the info, Tom. -- Connie

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