In 1903 artist V. V. Sewell mulled “people have no conception of how difficult it is for one to find a suitable studio in New York.” It was a problem that had prompted James Boorman Johnston to erect the famous 10th Street Studios Building in Greenwich Village nearly half a century earlier, in 1858. His was the first step in the movement of artist residence-workspace buildings that would gain momentum at the turn of the century.
In July 1901 three artists—Frank V. D. Du Mond, Henry W. Ranger, and Louis Paul Dessar—incorporated the Sixty-Seventh Street Studio Building Association with capital of $25,000. The well-established artists chose a rather questionable block on which to construct their cooperative studio building—West 67th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. Despite its proximity to the Park, it was lined with stables and other service buildings and described by the New-York Tribune as “the center of a negro settlement.” Yet these were minor obstacles when compared to the unblocked northern light so important to painters.
Henry W. Ranger had initiated the project and recruited Dumond and Dessar as the initial stockholders. He was also reportedly highly involved in the layouts of the apartment-studios. Architects Simonson & Sturgis were given the commission for the 14-story building. They turned to the currently popular Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau styles for the brick and terra cotta façade.
Construction was nearing completion on Christmas Day 1902 when disaster occurred. William Allen was employed by the contractor, W. J. Taylor, as a watchman. He was given a room on the ground floor with an iron stove for warmth.
One of Allen’s responsibilities was the care of the little heating pots located throughout the building to keep the new plaster from freezing. On December 26 The New York Times reported “There were pots of this kind on the third, fifth, and tenth floors last night.”
Just before midnight Allen was making his rounds. He was on the 10th floor when he smelled smoke. Before he could find the source on the first floor, a passerby saw the flames and turned in an alarm. Firemen soon arrived and extinguished the fire; but not before $3,500 worth of damages to woodwork and plaster was done.
While police attributed the blaze to Allen’s stove becoming overheated, the watchman was positive it was arson and a witness agreed. William Martin, a watchman across the street, told reporters that “just at the time the fire started he heard the two fox terriers of the watchman on the ground floor barking furiously…He thinks someone got into the watchman’s rooms and started the blaze.”
The Times added “Allen is certain some one got in and set the fire. He says his stove was one which was so set that it could not have started a fire in the room.”
The damages were repaired and by the end of March the building was nearly finished. On March 27, 1903 The New York Times reported “No. 27 West Sixty-seventh Street is sufficiently complete, so that a dozen artists are already ensconsed [sic] therein, with more to come.”
The fire was not the only problem during construction. “There have been the usual delays—trouble with the foundations, trouble from strikes, trouble about the architects—but at last the sober-looking pile (with its heavy-browed, low entrance, its marble vestibule decorated by Sewell with two friezes of youths on caracoling horses, its green painted casements and tall façade on red and black brick is taking on the animation of a hive of bees, as one studio after another receives its married couple or its bachelor occupant.”
|A magnificent art glass lamp--a hybrid of Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau--clings to the undressed stone by slender tendril-like supports.|
While the stone-and-brick “heavy browed” entrance was rather imposing with the address carved into shields and a magnificent art glass lamp with tendril-like supports on a purposely undressed stone base; the bulk of the façade was minimally decorated. The architects relied instead on recessed sections and variation in colors and materials to provide dimension and interest.
The New York Times was not impressed. “The front of the Sixty-seventh Street studios is not a thing of beauty, though their inner arrangement may be a joy forever. The model might have been a plain or even ugly Jacobean house or a somewhat ornate factory. This has been drawn up into the air after the fashion of Manhattan in order to gain many floors, but the imagination of the architect has not kept pace with the upward expansion.”
The Times’ critic felt that the weight of the design gave the impression of flattening the arches and crushing the entrance. He proclaimed the effect “depressing” and it was “not relieved by the colors chosen for the facing of brick.”
|The absence of nearby structures gave the back of the building access to uninterrupted northern light. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Nevertheless, the newspaper was taken with the resourceful layouts inside. “Great ingenuity has been expended on the problem of giving each apartment a well-lighted studio large or small. In some cases a tenant by taking two apartments and eliminating the dividing wall has doubled the size of his working room.”
|The design did not rely on overt ornamentation; but on varying colors of brick and three-dimensional effects of recesses within recesses.|
There were 14 two-story, 18-foot high studios flooded with northern light. Duplex living areas were to the front. These consisted of a dining room, study, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and a balcony that looked down into the studio. There were an additional 20 smaller units in the rear, two per floor.
The New-York Herald glowed in its assessment. “These Sixty-seventh street studios have brought domesticity—wives, babies and social life—into the studios. Here are all the conditions for comfortable living—electric lights, private baths, salons, kitchens, bedrooms, as well as lofty studios—and all the machinery for ambitious as well as private life.”
The building was formally opened at a reception on the afternoon of April 5, 1903. The New York Times reminded its readers at the time “This is the edifice erected by a knot of painters who found it difficult to get good studios in Manhattan.”
The Sixty-Seventh Street Studios welcomed an esteemed list of residents. Among the first were, of course, Dessar, Ranger and Du Mond; joined by Robert W. Vonnoh, F. Childe Hassam, Robert V. V. Sewell (who executed the lobby frescoes), Charles Naegele, and sculptress Bessie Potter Vonnoh and her husband, impressionist painter Robert.
American Art News described the Vonnoh apartments on October 21, 1905. “Both these studios are unusually large and well lighted and built under their owner’s supervision, with every convenience and comfort. Mr. Vonnoh’s studio is beautifully finished with rare hangings, rugs, and furniture. Mrs. Vonnoh’s is most artistic and interesting, though more plainly furnished than that of her husband, as is suited to her work as a sculptress.”
|Bessie Potter Vonnoh and Robert Vonnoh -- photo Archives of American Art|
In November 1903 The School of Decorative and Applied Art opened in the building. Affiliated with the New York School of Art, it was supervised by Eliza A. Sargent. Drawing and Manual Training Journal explained its purpose was “to meet the demands of the times that art, the crafts and the handicrafts be correlated.”
English-born sculptor Samuel J. Kitson died after a brief illness in 1904. At the time he was working on a model for a bronze statue, “Christ, the Light of the World.” The figure had been finished but it was his widow, Anne Meredith Kitson, who completed the base. The model was awarded the Pope’s Gold Medal for Sculpture in 1906. Anne stayed on in the studio, surrounded by models of her husband’s best works.
Artists taking space in the Sixty-Seventh Street Studios were not struggling. They had taken their places in the art world and, in many cases, in society. Anne Meredith Kitson herself was descended from an old New England family. Among her impressive list of friends, past and current, were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louisa May Alcott, Edwin Booth, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Samuel J. Tilden, General Philip H. Sheridan, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Alexander Graham Bell, and William McKinley.
Italian-born Pilade Bertieri took a studio in October 1905. The New York Times noted that he “has painted portraits of several well-known society people…and will receive on Saturdays. Mr. Bertieri spent the Summer at Newport.”
Like Anne Kitson, Cadwallader L. Washburn did not achieve his place in society, he was born into it. Technology Review, in 1906, called him “the scion of an old and well-known family, and a wealthy young man to boot.” The journal noted “He has been everywhere, all over Europe a score of times, to the Orient, across the Himalayas, and down into the heart of Africa.”
Washburn studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but turned his focus to art. He earned the nickname the “Silent Artist.” He worked at his easel alone in his studio here, “with never a sound to break the stillness save the plushing of his damp brushes upon the canvas or the delicate scratching of his etcher’s point,” wrote Technology Review.
The quiet was a result of Washburn’s inability to hear. He had been a deaf-mute since the age of three. “And yet, in spite of his affliction, there is probably no artist in all that life-loving and life-living profession who lives a fuller life, or one filled with a greater variety of enjoyment, than does Mr. Washburn. When his workday is over, he diverts himself with society.”
Equally prominent was artist George Henry Clements and his family. The landscape painter’s apartment was the scene of debutante entertainments in 1910 when daughter Anna was introduced to society. They ended with a supper and theater party on Monday, December 5. The joy of that occasion turned to grief only 11 days later when Anna’s 21-year old brother, Brent Dixwell Clements, died of pneumonia in the apartment.
Other artists in the building at the time included Ray Lindham, who had held an exhibition in his studio in February that year; portrait artist Lawrence Nelson; and Benjamin A. Morton.
Theodore Pembrook was an original resident and, like Cadwallader Washburn, was born into privilege. On February 16, 1911 The Potter, Glass & Brass Salesman noted “The Pembrooks were wealthy and their home became a treasure house stored with the products of centuries of European genius. Into this atmosphere the boy was born who was destined to become one of the foremost American artists.”
In 1914 F. Childe Hassam set a legal precedent when his law suit against the United States Express Company was decided. In 1905 he had send a painting, “A Rainy Day in Washington Square,” to Denver to be exhibited. On June 3 the express company was instructed to return the artwork to Hassam.
A worker mislabeled the package, sending it to No. 27 West 27th Street, an entrance to the Metropolitan Hotel. The Sun later reported “An employee of the hotel signed the receipt for it and it remained unclaimed at the hotel.”
While F. Childe Hassam tried in vain to discover what had become of his missing painting, it sat behind the hotel’s desk for months. An employee testified that it was still there on May 1, 1906 when he left the hotel’s employment. “Shortly afterward the hotel was torn down and its contents sold,” reported The Sun.
On July 10, 1914 the court ruled in favor of the artist, granting him the $1,174 for the lost painting. The Sun reported “The court holds that the express company is liable because the shipment was delivered at an address where the person to whom the shipment was made was not known.”
The New York Times chimed in, saying “What became of the picture is unknown. It lay behind the desk in the hotel office until the building was abandoned. In the course of a century or two, if Mr. Hassam takes rank as an ‘old master,’ the picture will doubtless be dug up and become the subject of debates as to whether it is a ‘fake’ or an original.”
Henry Ward Ranger died in the building he had conceived at the age of 58 on November 7, 1916. His will directed that his paintings be presented to art institutions or galleries “in America having galleries open to the public.” The remainder of his estate went to the National Academy of Design.
A year later, Theodore Kenyon Pembrook died in his apartment where he had lived for nearly 15 years. An art broker, Charles H. Boynton, said Pembrook was often referred to as the “hermit artist” because “he seldom showed interest in anything outside his studio.” The artist rarely sold his work, living off his inheritance.
On the evening of Thursday, September 20, 1917 Pembrook consulted with Charles Boynton about donating about a dozen of his landscapes for the war effort. After the broker left, it appeared that Pembrook took up working on a painting.
“Pembrook, who had been troubled with a weak heart for some time had apparently tired of painting, and, still wearing his painter’s smock, he had taken a novel and lay down on a couch to rest and read,” surmised The New York Times later.
When the building’s janitor had not seen the 52-year old for two days, he entered the studio. There he found Pembrook’s body on the couch with his brushes at his side.
Italian-born artist Luigi Curci shared a studio with his brother, Gennaro Curci in 1918. The speeding fine of $30 that Gennaro incurred for driving an automobile at 30 miles an hour on Broadway in July that year was nothing compared to the problems that were to come.
Luigi was married to the successful operatic prima donna Madame Amelita Galli-Curci. Things were not going well for the couple. On September 4, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported that the pair had separated and each was suing the other.
Curci alleged that his wife’s manager and accompanist had alienated her affections. He sued them for $250,000 damages—nearly $4 million in 2015. Madame Galli-Curci, at the same time, instructed her attorneys to remove everything from the Sixty-Seventh Street Studios apartment. She valued the contents at $17,000 and said they included “tapestry panels, rugs, a Capo di Monte vase, all the singer’s wearing apparel in the house, and the furnishings of a modern apartment.”
She issued a statement which said that since their marriage in 1908 she had earned all the money and he, “practically nothing.” The Tribune advised “Also, for the last two years, she added, her husband’s brother, Gennaro, has looked to her for support.”
She said that when she returned from a European tour in 1917 she found her bank account nearly empty. She was forced to change banks and revoke her husband’s access. According to The New York Times “Galli-Curci at once issued a statement branding her husband’s charges as ‘absurd,’ and made for the purpose of humiliating her.”
By 1927 American novelist Fannie Hurst was living here. Her works often dealt with women as victims of social and economic discrimination. Two of her novels, Back Street and Imitation of Life would become the bases of successful screen plays.
Her societal interests were reflected in her activities, often taking place in the studio. On March 7, 1927, for instance, she hosted a committee meeting of the National Health Circle for Colored People, Inc. Five years later, in March 1932, she addressed a group of convicts on Welfare Island. Several days later she received a knock on her door in the Sixty-Seventh Street Studios.
The man at her door said he had heard her speech on that Sunday. According to The Times he “described himself as Frank Brown, a newly released convict. He said he could get a job as a musician if he had evening clothes.”
Fannie Hurst was sympathetic to the needs of society; but she was no fool. “Miss Hurst checked up his story, found that he was an impostor, and refused to aid him,” reported The Times.
|Fannie Hurst lived in the Studios Building for years -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Frank V. Du Mond, one of the founders of the studios, was still here at the time. On June 3 his daughter was married at the family’s country estate, Grassy Hill, in Lyme, Connecticut. Also still here was Anne Meredith Kitson, after three decades.
Over the years several art patrons and galleries had made offers to buy the “Christ, the Light of the World” sculpture and have it cast. The Times would later explain “But Mrs. Kitson declined all offers, expressing the desire to place it where she thought it would be most appreciated.”
Finally she found the right place in 1936 when she was introduced to Father Bernard R. Hubbard. Called by some the “glacier priest,” he was also a scientist and explorer and had as his parish the 190 Eskimo inhabitants of King Island in the Bering Sea. Father Hubbard had for months been seeking an appropriate statue for the desolate island “as a symbol to Christians of Christ’s love, even for the atheistic Soviets,” as explained by The New York Times, and to “commemorate the heroism of Catholic missionaries working among the Eskimos.”
Anne Kitson was exhilarated at having found the perfect spot for her husband’s masterpiece. The 82-year old paid for and oversaw the arrangements for the casting, packing and shipping of the statue. But on November 7, 1937, The Times reported “The exertion proved too much for her strength, she became ill and died on Holy Thursday. Had she lived another week she would have seen her statue cast in bronze and started on its long journey to Alaska.”
The Sixth-Seventh Street Studios continued to be the home of established artists for decades, including Harrison Cady who moved into his eight-room studio in 1942. By the 21st century the unusual spaces had attracted those not involved in the arts, as well. What had not changed was the financial status of the occupants. When graphic designer Milton Glaser sold his duplex in 2007 the price tag was $4.1 million.
The striking façade of the Sixty-Seventh Street Studios, once considered “depressing” by one critic, is happily pristine. And, almost miraculously, the marvelous art glass lamp over the entrance survives.
photographs by the author