Thursday, June 21, 2012

Karl Bitter's Quaint 1891 Studio at No. 249-1/2 East 13th Street

The unfortunate wooden fence atop the mansard roof detracts from the charming cottage architecture and proportions -- photo by Alice Lum
Karl Francis Theodore Bitter was 16 years old when he first attempted to leave his native Austria and come to the United States.    But not only did his parents prohibit the move, so did the Viennese government.

After graduating "gymnasium," the equivalent of American high school, he studied in several art schools; finally being trained in sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.   At the age of just 19, his work earned him a gold medal that would ironically cause him severe problems and change his life.

Bitter, like every other young man in Austria, was compelled to join the army.  He served under a cruel Lieutenant who learned of Bitter’s artistic talent and the gold medal.   For a year the officer humiliated the young soldier and made him the brunt of mean-hearted persecution.  Finally Bitter could take no more and deserted, fleeing to Halle in Saxony-Anhalt.

He worked for a while on a colossal monument of a Valkyrie being done by the German sculptor Kaffsack; then learned that the Austrian government was attempting to extradite him.  He boarded a ship to America and immediately began the naturalization process.

Bitter’s talent and awards landed him work with a firm of architectural decorators where he met architect Richard Morris Hunt.   It would be a relationship that would later produce masterful joining of art and architecture.

At 21 years of age, Bitter entered the competition for the designing of the great $200,000 bronze doors for Trinity Church.  His co-workers ridiculed his audaciousness for entering his designs among those of the most esteemed sculptors of the day.  Karl Bitter won the competition. 

The New York Times would later comment “This made his name and gave him sufficient money to establish a small studio for himself in Thirteenth Street.”

The small studio was actually not just “for himself,” as The Times asserted.    The little building in the backyard of 215 Second Avenue would be shared by another sculptor, Giuseppe Moretti.   Both artists lived at the time in the Second Avenue building. 

How Bitter arranged to have his studio built here is uncertain.  The owner of the lot and the apartment building was the artists’ landlord, Eimer & Amends, who also operated a pharmacy in the neighborhood.    Most likely it was simple finance:  Bitter’s offer to pay for an improvement in the empty lot facing 13th Street made sense to the landowner.

Architect Max Schroff designed a quaint three-story building no taller than normal two-story structures.  Like a storybook cottage the red brick building took the address of 249-1/2 East 13th Street.  A broad dormer window flooded light into the upper studio space in the mansard roof.  Schroff adeptly used brick to produce a dentil cornice above street level and two blind archways above the door and window openings.

Proudly carved into the stone course that spanned street level was BITTER & MORETTI SCULPTORS.

photo by Alice Lum
It was most likely from this studio that Bitter began work on at least some of the more than 20 colossal sculptural groups for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.   Simultaneously Moretti was working on the sculptures for William K. Vanderbilt’s Newport mansion, Marble House, designed by Bitter’s friend, Richard Morris Hunt.

By the way, remember the Austrian lieutenant?    Bitter was surprised one afternoon to find the former officer at his door.  The lieutenant had fallen on hard times and humbly begged for work.  Bitter considered his former bully’s pitiful tale, then hired him as a manservant.

Something went awry with Bitter’s and Moretti’s relationship.  Whether the egos of the two now-successful sculptors clashed or whether their respective careers simply outgrew the small space is unclear.  But whatever the case, neither artist was here for more than a year or two.

The building continued to be used as an artist studio.  In 1899 the American Federation of Arts listed sculptor Charles Albert Lopez here.  Like Bitter, Lopez created several large statues for the Chicago World’s Fair.   From the East 13th Street studio he would produce works like the group “East Indies” for the 1899 temporary triumphal arch to Admiral Dewey and, a year later, the marble statue of Mohammed for the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York building.

In the summer of 1906 Lopez died after a comparatively simple operation.

photo by Alice Lum
The charming little studio building at No. 249-1/2 East 13th Street remains unchanged over a century after it was built.   Inside, during its early years, some of the nation’s most remarkable marble and bronze architectural statuary came to be.


  1. How could I have missed this one? A tad motley and ill-proportioned, but delightful nonetheless.


  2. A wonderful and historic survivor. Love Karl Bitter's work.