Friday, August 3, 2012

The Holbein Studios -- No. 154 West 55th Street

Above the vandalized street level, the groom's quarters and studios survive -- photo by Alice Lum

By 1888, the Midtown area around 55th Street was well developed as the mansions of New York’s wealthiest families moved up Fifth Avenue.    The residents of the neighborhood required carriage houses for their several vehicles and horses.  Specific blocks along the side streets that were not filled with upper class row houses were designated as stable blocks—like West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Here were both private carriage houses and livery stables.

Already financier Charles T. Barney had constructed a row of stables between 6th and 7th Avenues on 55th Street, far enough away from Fifth Avenue that the noises and smells were unobtrusive; yet near enough to prevent a long wait for one’s carriage.   

The wealthy Barney was a collector of European art ranging from the 12th through the 15th centuries.  Like most Victorian millionaires, his attitude towards the works of the upstart American artists was unsympathetic at best.  Yet sculptor Jonathan Scott Hartley was able to sway him—not through Barney’s appreciation for American art, but through the added income the artists could provide.

Hartley was a member of the National Academy of Design and had already completed an important work, a statue of the Puritan Miles Morgan for the town of Springfield, Massachusetts.   Focusing mostly on portrait busts, he would go on to sculpt works for the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and the Appellate Court House in Manhattan.   Despite Barney’s initial apprehensions, the artist convinced him to convert the unused upper levels of the stables into artist studios.

Before long painters who would become among the foremost names in American art were renting space from Barney—society portrait painter John Singer Sargent, landscape artist George Inness and impressionist Childe Hassam among them.   Buoyed by the financial success of the project, Barney constructed another stable on the opposite side of the street in 1888.  This one was designed specifically for artist space on the upper floor and would be known as the Holbein Studio.

Designed by Bassett Jones, the handsome, three-story Romanesque Revival style building at 154 West 55th Street was clad in brick.  The asymmetrical design included grouped, arched windows at the second floor—one set of three and another of two—unified by a decorative band of terra cotta.  A long and narrow arched window to the side of the steep mansard spilled light into the stair hall.

Jones treated the first floor like the second in running the terra cotta molding along the arches of the double carriage doors and two flanking side entrances.  Oversized iron hinges and attractive, segmented fanlights decorated the wooden side doors—one of which led to the grooms quarters above the ground floor and the other to the studios.    Over the entrance to the studios an ornate terra cotta shield announced “Studio.”

In 1976 the side door to the studios survived with its marvelous over-sized hinges.  The terra cotta shield announcing "STUDIO" is snugly fitted into the brickwork.  None of it would last much longer.  -- photo by Roy Colmer for his "Doors NYC" project; NYPL Collection

Above it all, the artists’ studios on the top floor were flooded with natural light through large skylights.

The carriage house portion was apparently leased to banker William C. Whitney, Barney’s brother-in-law, who was just ending his term as Secretary of the Navy.    Upstairs, struggling and not-so-struggling artists rented the studios.

E. Leon Durand painted his The Little Missionary here.  It was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Spring Exhibition of Water Colors in 1892.  Painter Bruce Crane had his studio here at the turn of the century as his work was shown at the Exhibition of Fine Arts at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition in 1901.

J. Mortimer Lichtenhauer would stay on for years at 154 West 55th Street.  He painted a variety of subjects, but recognized that society portraits were a sure source of income.  In 1908 he was commissioned to paint Mrs. Walter Scheftel as well as “Master Joseph Rothschild.”  That year he had a one-man show of a dozen paintings at the prestigious Knoedler’s Gallery on Fifth Avenue.  The critic from The New York Times found that his “combination of portraiture with decoration is remarkably well managed,” but he cautioned that Lichtenauer’s sense of color “tends, perhaps, towards heaviness.”

Lichtenauer created the above panel in 1904 in his studio in the Holbein -- Yearbook of the Architectural League of New York (copyright expired)

At the time Edward Dufner was here, and that same year he was included in the Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at Washington D.C,’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.    He also exhibited at the New York Water Color Club in 1908, resulting in a tepid assessment by the critic of the New York Tribune.

“Mr. Edward Dufner in his 'Springtime, Taormina,' does not seem quite to have achieved the effect sought, but it is interesting to observe the direction he is taking.  The figure pieces are of slight import, but one or two of them are at least clever.”

A year later, The Sun would be kinder.  “His suave touch, harmonious tonalities and graceful composition are soothing to the eye.”

Dufner had studied under Jean Paul Laurens and James McNeill Whistler.  His awards included First Wanamaker Prize at the Paris-American Art Association show in 1899, a bronze medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and a silver medal at the St Louis Universal Exposition of 1904.  Dufner would stay on at No. 154 through, at least, 1914.

By the middle of the 1920's, carriages and horses were  essentially a thing of the past.  So too were the grand homes in the neighborhood.  In 1927 (or 1928, depending on the source) the carriage house was converted to a movie theater.  The owner went right to the top in deciding on his architect.

In May 1923, the 26 year old Maurice Fatio had been voted the most popular architect in New York.   He joined in partnership with William A. Treanor and designed lavish homes in New York and Palm Beach.  Fatio’s Mediterranean-style mansions in Florida were already iconic.

Treanor & Fatio paused to convert the stable to a theater.   The 55th Street Playhouse was, for years, an art theater.  The first European film with subtitles screened in the United States was shown here.    As the 1930's dawned, there were only three other art theaters in Manhattan—the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, the Little Carnegie Playhouse and the Plaza.  The theater gained a reputation as a venue for top-shelf, art films.  Here were the premiers of important films like Orson Welles’s The Spanish Earth, narrated by Ernest Hemingway; Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus and Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

But avant garde films, as the managers of the 55th Street Playhouse discovered, could also be trouble.   In June 1970 the theater began screening the new film Censorship in Denmark: A New Approach.  The motion picture was ostensibly a documentary study of pornography.  Assistant District Attorney Richard Beckler, however, did not agree with that description.

On September 30 theater manager Chung Louis was arrested on the charge of promoting and distributing obscene material.  The film was ordered seized by Criminal Court Judge Jack Rosenberg.  The judge ruled “This court finds for the purposes of issuance of a warrant of seizer that ‘Censorship in Denmark,’ taken as a whole, has as its dominant theme appeals to a prurient interest in sex.”  He added “It is patently offensive to most Americans because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the description or representation of sexual matters.”

In 1976 the exterior was a bit worse for the wear.  Clapboards, added to modernize the facade, are peeling off and the terra cotta molding is broken -- photo by Roy Colmer for his "Doors NYC" project; NYPL Collection

In the meantime, office and apartment buildings were quickly replacing the older structures on the block.   Residential renters now lived in the upper floors of the Holbein Studios.  In 1979 the Landmarks Preservation Commission included 154 West 55th Street on its list of structures for possible consideration.    It had not gotten around to that consideration in 1987 when William Zeckendorf began construction of the London NYC Hotel on 54th Street, directly behind the old studios.  The developer announced that, while he would not raze the carriage house, it would be converted to a freight entrance for the 58-story hotel.

One tenant, Gerald Intrator, rebuffed the new owner’s attempts to remove him.   Although offers were made, reportedly, of half a million dollars to leave; Intrator stayed.  He implored the Landmarks Preservation Commission to move on designating the structure.

Despite the tenant’s valiant efforts, the hotel owner got his way.  The Holbein Studios was not designated and the handsome ground floor of the structure was obliterated for a truck entrance.  But above the desecration of the street level, the fa├žade survives; including the broad expanse of skylight that once shed sunlight onto the creations of early 20th Century American artists.

UPDATE:  The structure was demolished in 2019.

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  1. It seems reasonable to think that the stubborn tenant may have been Jerald Intrator, whose motion picture resume included "Satan In High Heels," and went downhill from there, depending on one's perspective. Another notable tenant for some years was jazz vocalist Sylvia Syms.

  2. Thanks for this write-up. Am staying in a hotel facing this little building, and was wondering of its history. Nice timing.