Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Carerre & Hastings' 1895 Life Building - 19 West 31st Street

Sculptor Philip Martiny's exuberant "Winged Life" survives beautifully intact above the entrance.
In 1883 a group of Harvard graduates put together a humor magazine inspired by the Harvard Lampoon.  The young men hoped to become an American version of the British Punch and the recently successful JudgeThe Lampoon, in truth, was itself a close imitation to Punch.
Life would be different, however.  While the popular American Judge and Puck magazines were filled with strident humor; Life would be more subtle.  The editors ran only black-and-white cartoons and illustrations and kept its joking above reproach – it was literary humor for the refined and proper reader.  Half a century later it would be the model for another high-toned magazine, The New Yorker.

The magazine’s success would be amplified four years later when 19-year old illustrator Charles Dana Gibson began contributing drawings.   The young man’s ability to transform witty observations of life into illustration form made him almost an instant favorite among readers.  His familiar depictions of beautiful Victorian women in shirtwaist blouses with leg-of-mutton sleeves became known as the “Gibson Girls.”

Life magazine was so successful by 1893 its offices at 25 West 23rd street were no longer adequate.  At No. 19 West 31st Street stood the brownstone mansion of philanthropist and social reformer Louisa Lee Schuyler.  The area by now, however, was no longer the exclusive residential neighborhood it had been, and the house, along with its neighbor at No. 21, were sold to the magazine as its building site.

On June 2, 1893 the Buildings Department reported “filing by the managers of Life Publishing Company” for an eight-story “brick store and offices” to cost $160,000.   The magazine contracted architectural firm Carrere & Hastings to design the structure.   The respected firm would become well-known for its work in the Beaux Arts style just becoming popular; culminating in its masterful New York Public Library four years later.

For the Life Building the architects produced a striking Beaux Arts structure of limestone and red brick.  Two enormous arched openings flanked the central entrance in the rusticated limestone base.  Above, the brick façade was embellished with carved garlands, scrolled brackets, classical pediments over the third story windows and ornamented balconies.  The magazine’s name was worked into the decorative cast iron window guards.

The focal point of the design was the elaborate sculpture above the doorway carved by esteemed artist Philip Martiny.   The magazine’s symbol “Winged Life” (very similar to the Puck Magazine emblem), sits within the scrolled, broken pediment.  The cherub writes on a pad, surrounded by symbols of the various arts.

The magazine's title was worked into the ironwork, along with double L's in the cartouches.
The new headquarters, completed in 1895, was an innovative combination of functions.   Not only did it house the editorial offices of Life Publishing but space was rented out to other publishing firms – both The Area and Alliance Publishing would rent space here.  More interesting, however, were the apartments on the upper floors.

Two-room apartments were available for upscale, unmarried men.   In 1898 author Charles Brodie Patterson lived here when he published his “Beyond the Clouds,” a collection of lectures “on the spiritual science.”   The Life Building was home to Benjamin Barker, an attorney and member of the firm Smith & Barker at 120 Broadway.  In 1903 Edward Coster Wilmerding, a bond salesman with Kinnicutt & Potter and a graduate of the prestigious Groton School lived here; as did Robert Elmer Booraem, in 1907, who traced his family to New Netherlands in 1636.

Several of Life’s staff lived here as well, no doubt finding the arrangement more than convenient.   Among these was F T. Richards who had studied under Thomas Eakins and Edmund B. Bensell.
In the meantime, Dana Gibson’s popularity and success soared and Life Publishing signed an exclusive contract with him.

In 1898 the magazine announced that “After January 1st Mr. Gibson will draw only for Life and his work can be seen in no other publication.”  The magazine offered original proofs of his work for $2.00.  “These proofs are hand-printed, on Japan paper, mounted ready for framing.  They are attractive and artistic decorations for any house and are as suitable presents—holiday, wedding, birthday, or for any occasion—as one can give.

Gibson had the uncanny ability to capture everyday incidents and ranges of emotion in one frame, as in "The Crush" in 1901.  The object of the boy's affection is the epitome of the illustrator's famed "Gibson Girl." (copyright expired)
Gibson, who could afford a fashionable home on East 73rd Street with his wife, Irene, maintained his studio in the Life Building.  From here he became the magazine’s most valued employee.  Who’s Who in New York City and State remarked in 1904, “he is noted for his simple and telling style of drawing, bringing out with a few bold strokes the beautiful, strong types known as the ‘Gibson Women,’ and the fine athletic ‘Gibson Men.’”

A LIFE cover from 1911 hints at the humorous material inside. (copyright expired)
The Great Depression struck what would become a fatal blow and the magazine left the Life Building for rented offices.  Before long the new Time publishing firm, wanting to offer a magazine that showcased America to the world, purchased the name Life and the humor magazine merged with Judge.  It was the end of the line for the upscale, sophisticated periodical.

The Life Building, in the meantime, was converted to an “apartment hotel” with retail space for four stores on the sidewalk level.  In 1936 the sale of the building by the Central Savings Bank to the 19 West Thirty-first Street Corporation was announced.   The new owners began a modernization of the forty two-room apartments and penthouse.

By the 1960s the neighborhood had become somewhat sketchy.  The two-room apartments in what was now called the Clinton Hotel had become 91 single hotel rooms.  In one of them lived 19-year old Murray King. 

On August 22, 1966 the boy and two older men attacked 24-year old Brian Jenkins and his father as they walked along 34th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue.  What the thugs did not know was that Jenkins was a First Lieutenant with the Green Berets, on leave from Fort Bragg, and his 48-year old father was a wrestler and swimmer.   It was an uneven match.

When King and his co-defendants appeared before Judge Manuel Gomez in Criminal Court, they asked to swear out complaints against the lieutenant and his father; “their faces puffed, elbows bruised and eyes swollen,” as reported in The New York Times.

The Clinton Hotel was sold in January 1970 at a time when things were slowly improving for the area once again.    By 1988 a restoration was underway, headed by manager Abraham Puchall, and in 1991 the hotel reopened as the Herald Square Hotel.

The reborn hotel gives a deliberate nod at the history of the building.  Some rooms are furnished in reproduction turn-of-the-century furniture, framed copies of Life covers line the walls and a cast of Martiny’s “Winged Life” is prominently displayed in the lobby.

The façade of Carrere & Hastings’ Beaux Arts Life Building is remarkably unchanged and Philip Martiny’s wonderful sculpture happily remains above the doorway.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. Ahhh, for the days when companies thought "We're going to be in this building FOREVER"

  2. Thanks for bringing this to my attention! Do you know that Martiny (1858-1927) was responsible for the wonderful cherub staircase at the Library of Congress? One of my favorite pieces of sculpture anywhere.

    1. I was not aware of that. it's an incredible staircase. Martiny's architectural sculpture appears throughout Manhattan. He is often overlooked and sadly much of his work has been destroyed.

  3. I think that I mentioned to you a couple of weeks ago, that the Hotel Wolcott at 4 west 31st street had a intact lobby and ballroom. had you ever looked into that hotel?

    1. Here's the link to my post on that hotel. There is one photo of the renovated lobby.

  4. Before the renovation in the 1980s, the chimney stacks continued straight up, although the facade curved backward in a sort of Mansard roof, away from them. It was magnificent, and the upper story additions that replaced the old roof/attic are hideous.