Friday, August 24, 2012

Cass Gilbert's 1917 Rodin Studios -- 200 West 57th Street

The newly-finished building in 1917 -- Architecture & Building (copyright expired)
As American art came into its own at the beginning of the 20th century, artists grappled with the problem of finding proper studio space.   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.”   One solution was found in the concept of artists’ cooperative studio buildings, like the 1908 Gainsborough Cooperative on Central Park South.  The brainchild of a group of established artists it provided studios and residential spaces custom-made for successful artists.  Among them were painters John Fry, who became vice president of the corporation, and his wife Georgia Timkey Fry.

Like the Frys, painter Lawton S. Parker had lived for a time in Paris.  Together the three conceived of another studio-residence for prosperous artists in 1916.  Like the Gainsborough, theirs would be named after a preeminent artist—Auguste Rodin.   The trio chose West 57th Street in the artistic neighborhood of Carnegie Hall and the American Fine Arts Society Building.  And for their architect they chose Cass Gilbert.

Gilbert had recently completed his tour de force, the white terra cotta Gothic Revival Woolworth Building.    For the Rodin Studios he would again turn to terra cotta and Gothic styling, but with much different results.

The street level was reserved for retail stores and the second and portions of the third floor were leased as business offices—affording extra income for the cooperative.    The rest of the building was a mixture of simplex studios, studios with connected living space, and duplex studio/apartments.  The duplexes were all along the northern façade—maximizing the national light available to the artists.

The two-story studios faced north in order to flood the interiors with natural light -- photo by Alice Lum
Cass used rough, multi-colored brick for the face of the building then embellished it with cast and wrought iron, and terra cotta.   Gothic motifs in terra cotta were complimented by superb iron canopies over each of the duplex spaces.  Based on Gothic choir stall canopies, the slightly-projecting canopies gave the façade visual movement.

photo by Alice Lum
On July 15, 1917 The Sun reported that “The suites are appealing to artists because of the large studios which front on Fifty-seventh street, thereby securing the north light.  These studios are from 21.6 feet to 25 feet wide and are 29 and 30 feet long.  Then there are upper studios or balconies off which are the sleeping chambers and other compartments.”  The newspaper added that “The house is so planned that it is possible for a renter to get almost any amount of space desired and arranged to his satisfaction.”

The largest apartments—eight rooms and a studio—rented for $350 per month.   Along with the Frys and Parker, Russian-born artist Boris Anisfeld moved in.  The widely-known Anisfeld was a modernist who worked in brilliant colors.  But other well-heeled residents were not necessarily inclined to the arts.  The first year a variety of tenants appeared—George J. Sperry, Miss Eva Sullivan, Mrs. Lloyd Williams, Charles L. Cammann, Jr., Miss Josephine C. Mayher and educator E. H. Grasty.

Gilbert added intricate Gothic details--many unseen from street level--like these crouching figures and men reading books -- photo by Alice Lum
Socially prominent Alphonse Jongers and his wife lived here with their daughter Louise McAllister Jongers in 1920 when she married Thomas Ashley Dent, Jr. in St. Thomas Church.  Louise was the grandniece of Ward McAllister—the self-appointed arbiter of all things having to do with high society.  Her new husband was the grandnephew of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant.

At the same time that Louise Dent was entering wedded bliss, portrait artist Pierre Tartoue and his wife were ending theirs.  When attended a ball at the Ritz-Carlton, he was still working on the painting “The Goddess of Happiness” which would later cost Alfred du Pont $30,000.  There the artist saw the young and lovely Claudia Windsor who was much younger than he.  The New-York Tribune said she was “young and as pretty as the many pictures which have been made of her.”  The California society girl was in New York studying music.

Before long Claudia’s eyes became the models for those of “The Goddess of Happiness” and the two were smitten.   Tartoue divorced his wife and shortly afterward, in October 1919, the couple was married by Magistrate William A. Sweetser in Tartoue’s apartment in the Rodin.  For a while things went smoothly.   The new Madame Tartoue told a reporter for The New York Tribune “I was very happy.  I had the dear little home that I had longed for and I loved Pierre and I am sure he loved me.”

Things fell apart when the artist traveled to California in January 1921 and dug into his bride's background.  The Tribune reported on January 25 that he was “speeding home from the West armed with statements regarding ‘the past life’ of his bride of a little more than a year and ‘data regarding her relatives.’”

The past life included two former husbands.

The separation of Tartoue and his young bride was not, apparently without incident.  Claudia Tartoue’s misfortune continued when, after she moved to 180 Fifth Avenue, the Pierce Arrow Renting Company sought to recoup the $1,054 she owed.  When the firm learned that she owned valuable porcelain that was still at the Rodin Studios, they moved quickly.

Sheriff Fitzsimmons knocked on Pierre Tartoue’s door on April 20, 1921 with an order to remove two sets of porcelain—both of 100 pieces—a green set valued at $1,000 and a rose colored set valued at $2,000.  The artist explained to the officer “My wife never owned these porcelain sets.  They were mine.”

When the deputy asked Tartoue what he meant by “they were” Tartoue responded “Ah, they are no more.  My wife she break them all on my head.”

Atop each of the tall, thin pinnacles of the canopies perches a fantastic winged creature -- photo by Alice Lum
1921 was not a good year for Tartoue.  Art dealer Rene M. Van Lennet also lived in the Rodin.  On February 21 the two friends were walking along 57th Street at 3rd Avenue when they attracted the attention of two barbers, James O’Connor and Patrick Lynch.   For some reason the barbers began hurling insults at Tartoue and Van Lennet, then beat them.

The Irishmen were sentenced to five days in the workhouse on charges of disorderly conduct.

Five years later author Theodore Dreiser moved into a duplex on the 13th floor with Helen Richardson and their white Russian wolfhound named Nick.    The couple decorated the soaring two-story main room with Dreiser’s immense writing desk that had been made from the piano of his songwriter brother, Paul.   There was a long sofa with high arms that caused a guest once to remark “To sit on it is to lose your personality,” and portraits of the author.  One, a full-length portrait, was painted by Wayman Adams and another, a caricature, depicted him as a seated Japanese feudal baron.

Dreiser was already a celebrity and he and Richardson held well-known Thursday evening receptions here.  The apartment, which cost the novelist $488 a month, would fill week after week with the chatter of a diverse group of guests.   Here financial moguls would meet movie stars, playwrights and authors would talk with editors and critics.   Austrian psychoanalysist Abraham Brill was a regular guest as were Mariam Hopkins, Otto Kahn, Sherwood Anderson, Max Eastman, Alexander Woollcott, Ernest Boyd, Claude Bowers and British novelist John Cowper Powys.

After the middle of the century the apartments that were once home to artists and authors (as well as less glamorous types) were converted to office space.  Floors now divided the duplexes in half and Cass Gilbert’s interiors were obliterated. 

By 2006 chunks of the decorative terra cotta were falling to the pavement below and the structural steel was corroding.   Architects Zaskorski & Notaro spearheaded a restoration, working with engineers Robert Silman Associates and restoration contractor Nicholson & Galloway, Inc.   The entire 8-foot tall cornice was removed; replaced with new structural steel and Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete replicas.  Around 400 pieces of damaged terra cotta were replaced with new cast stone units.  Six terra cotta balconies were disassembled and restored with salvaged, original materials.  The twenty cast iron balconies were stripped and repainted, and 175 pieces of damaged cast iron were either reproduced or repaired.

The entire cornice was removed and replaced -- photo

The year-long project also included the restoration of 235 historic wood window units.  When completed the restoration was awarded the NYC Lucy G. Moses Landmarks Award.

Although the astounding interiors, other than the barrel-vaulted lobby, have been lost; the façade of the Rodin Studios has been lovingly preserved.  The building was designated a New York City landmark in February 1988.

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