Monday, May 28, 2012

The Lost 1865 National Academy of Design -- 4th Avenue and 23rd Street

photo NYPL Collection
Towards the end of the 1850s John ruskin's aesthetic theories influenced a group of young, idealistic New York artists and architects.  Dismayed at the lack of truly American art and architecture, the formed the Society for the Advancement of Trust in Art in January 1863.  Among the group were architects Russell Sturgis, a friend of Ruskin; and Peter Bonnet Wight; artists Thomas Farrer and Charles Moore; and art critic Clarence Cook.

The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation took place almost simultaneously and the group rallied against slavery saying it made truthful art impossible.   They pushed the Pre-Raphaelite principals in art, scoffing at the French Romanticist works being hung in the parlors of America’s wealthy patrons.  And they actively sought solid, home-grown architecture to be proud of.

If they wanted American architecture, they had gotten a taste of it in 1855 when Jacob Wrey Mould’s unconventional All Soul’s Church was completed at the corner of 4th Avenue and 20th Street.  The exotic Italian Romanesque style structure was like nothing ever built in the United States and its contrasting stripes of red and beige quickly earned it the nickname “The Church of the Holy Zebra.”

According to Peter Bonnet Wight, Mould’s designs for the church made him realize “what an architect was.”

By 1863, no doubt through the incitement of the Society, New Yorkers laid plans for an academy for the training of American artists.  The lofty concept was paid for entirely by public donations and it was Peter Wight who would receive the commission to design the new National Academy of Design at the corner of 4th Avenue and 23rd Street.  And his admiration of Gould’s spectacular church three blocks to the south would be a evident.

Harper's Weekly published a sketch of the exotic new building -- NYPL Collection
The cornerstone was laid on June 27 and The New York Times promised it “will be one of the handsomest buildings in the United States, and different from any other edifice in the City.  It will combine many novel and beautiful characteristics in the highest style of art and taste.”

A “fine band of music graced the ceremonies with appropriate interludes” and the ceremony “called together a large concourse of the most refined classes of our people,” said The Times.  Along with the usual documents and coins placed Inside the copper casket within the cornerstone was a letter from Abraham Lincoln.

Unlike the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral which came to a halt due to the Civil War, the building of the Academy went on—despite most of the city’s workforce having marched off to battle.

Wight intended for his Academy building to make a point.  His building would prove that American architecture could be imaginative and beautiful—a work of art in itself.

He designed a Venetian Gothic palace of white marble from Tuckahoe, New York, with contrasting blue-grey Hastings marble and bands of “North River greywacke stone.”   A split staircase descended from the Gothic-arched entrance to the sidewalk like outstretched arms.  The various colors of marble created zig-zag and diamond patterns, stripes and stars.  The cornice was a diadem of Gothic tracery.  It was, as The Times predicted, “different from any other edifice in the City.”

The Gothic theme continued inside and the ornately-carved capitals of the marble columns caused problems for the stone carvers.   Each of the eight columns with its individual white marble capital of carved flowers, was presented by a different member of the Academy.

Interior colors were achieved through the use of natural woods -- Harper's Weekly, 1865 (copyright expired)
But Gothic ornamentation was nearly unheard of among the carvers who were accustomed to Corinthian, leafy motifs.    The craftsmen had to practice in modeled clay to get the details right; and even then did not always do so.  The New Path would later suggest that there were “capitals now standing in the building which had better been rejected.”

Wight relied on natural woods for colors inside.  The interior was finished in white pine, ash, mahogany, oak and black walnut—there was no interior paint anywhere throughout the building.

Passing pedestrians refresh themselves at the fountain below the entrance -- Harper's Weekly 1865 (copyright expired)
Nevertheless, the completed building was a staggering success.  The dedication was postponed due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  It was opened twelve days later on Thursday evening, April 27, 1865.

Harper’s Weekly called it “a beautiful Temple of Art.  It went up in the years of angry strife, but at the time of its dedication the time of peace was almost fully come…It is spacious, solid, convenient, simple in arrangement, ample in accommodation, and very beautiful and effective.”

Despite the President’s recent death, Harper’s said “The gay groups ascending and descending the Grand Staircase…afford[ed] a splendid spectacle.”    The New York Times predicted that the building would cause a change in architectural trends.  “The Gothic renaissance will be the chief style of architecture, with some florid adaptations of the still more modern day.”

The New Path agreed, saying that Wight’s building showed that “our cities need not be the homes of ugliness that they now are.”

The lavish structure had cost around $200,000.  The street level, below the first floor, held the offices and janitorial accommodations.  Above were exhibition space, lecture halls and school rooms.  The second floor held galleries and studios.  The Nation beamed that it was “the most beautiful work of architectural art in America.”

Along with instruction, the National Academy of Design presented exhibitions of the works of its members and students.  American art was suddenly becoming acceptable and collectors need not be ashamed if a work was not European.

Worthington Whittredge remembered in his autobiography “The Academy…was built chiefly during the war and it was during the war and a little later that the very popular artists’ receptions were held there, for which it was often difficult to get a ticket, so many fine people were desirious [sic] of attending them.  They were the great occasions for the artists to show their works and meet nearly all the lovers of art in the City.  The painters sold their pictures readily and native art flourished more conspicuously than now.”

Two years after the building’s opening, an art critic for The New York Times paused before a large work by the emerging landscape artist Albert Bierstadt, “Looking Down Yo Semite Valley Ca.”  “The distribution of the picture, we take it, is geographically correct…But we may ask with pertinence and justice, in what way is such a picture essential to our perception of beauty; to our apprehension of the sublime?”

A New York Times critic complained in 1866 that Bierstadt's "Looking Down Yosemite Valley" lacked a subject -- Birmingham Museum of Art
While the writer reiterated that Bierstadt’s technique was “correct” he cautioned that “The sunlight effect to which we have referred is ingenious enough, but it is by no means novel.  It detracts, perhaps, from the rigor of the scene, but it does not add to it human interest.”  Finally he concluded, “But to bring our remarks to a close, the defect of the picture is its lack of an appreciable subject.”

Generations of later art students would take issue with the verdict.

By 1870, on "varnishing day," the limited wall space of the Academy was already becoming apparent -- NYPL Collection
A decade after its opening, the building still won applause.  James D. McCabe, in his 1872 “Lights and Shadows of New York Life,” remarked “It is one of the most beautiful edifices in the city.  It is built in the pure Gothic style of the thirteenth century, and the external walls are composed of variegated marble.  It has an air of lightness and elegant, that at once elicits the admiration of the gazer.”

A stereopticon view caught the marble staircase and fountain -- NYPL Collection
As the century closed, the National Academy of Design became a victim of its own success.  On November 13, 1898 The Sun reported on the latest exhibition that included works by Frederick Church and Lockwood de Forest.   The newspaper complained about the crowding of the 333 paintings and 22 sculptures into the available space.    “It is better to have no more than two rows of pictures in an exhibition than tier upon tier to the sky line.”

Well-dressed art lovers browse the exhibition in 1882 -- Harper's Weekly (copyright expired)
Within a year of the article, the National Academy announced its intentions to build new facilities far north on “a site of sixteen city lots on Cathedral Parkway Drive,” as reported in The New York Times.

The Academy expounded on the need for a new, larger building in May 1900 when The New York Tribune reported “The Academy of Design has had little facility for the exhibition of sculpture in the past, and has frequently been deprived of the participation of sculptors in its exhibitions.  Again, prominent painters have of late been devoting most of their time to mural painting.  Many of them have found it impossible to exhibit with the Academy.”

By 1880 telegraph poles surrounded the Academy building -- NYPL Collection
As the Academy prepared to build its new structure, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company “paid a large sum” for the property on 4th Avenue, according the New York Tribune.   On August 11, 1901 plans were announced for the demolishing the marble National Academy of Design.

The unique interior columns their individual capitals and bases, were salvaged to be incorporated into the new building uptown.

And then two weeks later the Academy began coming down.  On August 25 The Times reported “The inevitable and foreseen has occurred and workmen are demolishing the pretty home of the painters on Fourth Avenue which has given character to the Madison Square and Twenty-third Street zone for the last quarter of a century.”

With a casual slap at American sensibilities, the article noted “The walls of the Academy have enclosed much innocent and elevating pleasure for a small fraction of the citizens of New York not too dull to enjoy art, not too much harassed by the needs of bread getting to take advantage of what it had to offer.”

photo NYPL Collection
As the building disappeared Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine mentioned that “The corner-stone of the old National Academy of Design, now nearly demolished, has been uncovered, and the copper box contained within it has been removed to the Academy’s present quarters, at 109th St. and Amsterdam Ave….It is said to contain many things of public interest of that date, but it has not been decided to open it, sentiment being rather in favor of depositing it intact in the new building when it is erected.”

And so the letter from Abraham Lincoln inside was saved from the wrecking ball along with the eight marble interior columns.   The rest of the exotic Venetian Gothic National Academy of Design--arguably the birthplace of American art--was smashed to the pavement, replaced by a utilitarian office building.


  1. There is a church uptown in Harlem I believe that incorporated major portions of the main facade and stairs and other details into the church while it was under construction. One can easily see the Academy when looking at the church facade. The name escapes me at the moment.

    1. That is very interesting. Not one of the contemporary accounts of the demolition mentions any salvage (other than the columns), which would be expected. I would love to know which church you think it is. Thanks for sharing that.

    2. Its true- I forget which church, but the priest saved a lot of money by buying the work as salvage.

  2. Fascinating. I work at the corner of W24th and Park Avenue South and pass by this site everyday. Thank you for this post.

  3. Tom: 467 west 142nd St. Our Lady of Lourdes church. Supposedly in 1901 the pastor wanted to build a grand church but had a limited budget and he used architectural salvage, probably one of the first examples of its kind in NYC. You can easily spot the original Academy building facade and it also incorporated some marble salvage from the great AT Stewart mansion on 34th Street and 5th Ave. The original building however was a magnificent Venetian design. So sad to know it is gone, even though pieces still remain its not the same thing.

  4. oops forgot - use the Nieuw Haarlem blog they have a nice history on teh church and some of the same photos showing the 2 buildings


  6. Wow. Incredible stuff. Our Lady of Lourdes has to be one of the first true examples of architectural salvaging. Thanks everyone for the information.

  7. An especially interesting topic for today's post. Just lovely. Thank you for sharing.