Saturday, October 27, 2012

The 1901 Beaux Arts Studios -- 80 West 40th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Essentially forgotten today, Abraham Archibald Anderson was more than a portrait painter. His love of nature would result in his being named Special Superintendent of the Yellowstone Forest Reserve.  Letters he received from President Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody and the first chief of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, dealt with America’s forests and natural environment, not about art.

But in 1900 it was Anderson’s art for which he was best known. Born in New Jersey in 1847, he moved to Paris in his 20’s to study art. While still living here in 1887 he married the daughter of wealthy banker Jeremiah Milbank who founded the Borden Milk Company. Milbank had died in 1884, leaving his daughter, Elizabeth, a considerable fortune. Around the time that he received the Gold Medal at the Paris in 1899 for his painting “Morning After the Ball” the Andersons moved back to the United States.  

Anderson continued to paint society portraits with such notables as John Wanamaker, Elihu Root and Thomas Edison sitting for him.   The wealthy couple traveled extensively and Elizabeth Milbank was involved in numerous charities.  But New York City presented a problem to the artist:  there was little adequate studio space from which to work.

Anderson briefly moved to Connecticut, then decided to take matters into his own hands.  He would simply build a artist studio building.  He recalled in his 1933 autobiography “Experiences and Impressions,” “Thinking other artists returning to America would be in the same situation, I decided to erect a studio building.  I bought four lots at the corner of Fortieth Street and Sixth Avenue the former site of the Hotel Royal that had a short time since been destroyed by fire, and designed, planned, and erected the Beaux Arts Studio there.”

Abraham Archibold Anderson
Anderson’s assertion that he “designed, planned, and erected” the building was a bit self-serving.  He commissioned architect Charles A. Rich who had already worked with Elizabeth on several of her philanthropic projects, including Milbank Hall at Barnard College in 1896.

The site was well-chosen.  Across 40th Street to the north was Bryant Park where half a century earlier the grand New York Crystal Palace had stood.   The park would serve as the backyard for the white marble New York Public Library by 1911 and the northern light that flooded into the windows of the Beaux Arts Studios was guaranteed.

The apartments in the resulting 12-story structure, completed in 1901, were designed as residential and working space specifically for artists.  Two dozen double-height studios on the 40th Street side were washed in sunlight from two-story walls of windows.   Rich worked with pink brick with terra cotta and stone trim to create a comfortable Beaux Arts-style blend of residential and industrial elements.

Double-height studios had expansive walls of glass for ample northern light -- photo by Alice Lum
The first tenants were the owners.  Abraham and Elizabeth Anderson took the entire top floor.  The apartment and studio would be as much a place of social gatherings as it would be a home and workplace.

Exuberant scrolled Beaux Arts brackets support a balcony like breaking waves -- photo by Alice Lum
In January 1915 with the war raging in Europe, the Anderson home was the scene of a “concert for the benefit of French families made destitute by the war,” as reported in The New York Times, and of a bridge tournament for charity.   The same month Anderson opened the apartment for the annual dinner of the Hunters Fraternity of America, of which he was president.  Mayor John Mitchell, former Senator William H. Reynolds and other members might have been a bit surprised by the live animals running loose.

“Rabbits hopping about the table and doves flitting through the air were features of the annual dinner,” reported The Sun on January 16.

The following year the Fraternity was back and Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary, discoverer of the north pole and Captain Roald Amundsen, who discovered the south pole, were the featured guests.  To highlight the occasion, Anderson decorated with table with snow and an electric-lighted iceberg in the center.

By 1917 Anderson was referred to by naturalists as Colonel Anderson.  On January 16, 1917 the New York State Forestry Association held its annual meeting in the apartment, during which Dr. William T. Hornaday, director of the Zoological Park warned about the over-hunting of wild deer.  “The day is not far off when no deer will be seen except within the State estuaries and parks,” he predicted.

It was not all rabbits, doves and deer in the Anderson household, however.  Mrs. Anderson continued to host charity events and on May 2, 1918 she held a concert for the benefit of Belgians left destitute by the war.  In attendance were the cream of Manhattan society including Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. Horace Havemeyer, and the Hewitt sisters.

photo by Alice Lum
In the meantime the street level was home to the Café des Beaux Arts, owned by brothers Andre, Jacques, Pierre and Louis Bustanoby.  The family owned two other restaurants including the Chateau des Beaux Arts in Huntington, Long Island.  One block from fashionable 5th Avenue, the high-end restaurant was known for years for its excellent cuisine.

The building filled with artists, among them Katherine Sophie Dreier.  A member of the Abstraction-Creation movement, her abstract paintings had a spiritual emphasis.  Like the Andersons, she balanced her artistic endeavors with charity and political work.  In 1915 she served as the chairperson of the German-American Committee of the Woman Suffrage Party.

Not every tenant in the building was an artist.  In 1919 Henry Morton, treasurer of the Meyerowitz Brothers diamond importing company, lived here; as did dentist R. Ottolengui.  A year later Dr.. Ottolengui made his opinions known concerning the Du Pont Company’s release of a new type of ether “which eliminates pain without loss of consciousness and virtually eliminates the nausea that usually follows”

The dentist scoffed to The New York Tribune “How can the du Ponts improve on the use of cocaine or its substitutes?”  Ottolengui openly suspected that the ether was simply a cocaine variation.  
“It is quite possible that they have discovered a new way of making synthetic cocaine from the by-products of their plant.  It seems reasonable to suppose that a new combination of chemicals has been found which will perform the same services of cocaine, just as novocaine, now used by dentists, does.”

In April 1920 Anderson leased the entire building to the L. K. Schwartz Company for 42-years at an aggregate rent of $3.5 million.  It was a complicated arrangement whereby Anderson would begin paying rent on his own apartment while receiving rent for his building.  At the time of the lease signing, the Tribune noted ‘The building houses the studios of a number of America’s well known artists.”

Among those were illustrator J. C. Leyendecker, who would be the major influence of Norman Rockwell; Edward Steichen, Edward Suydam, Haskell Coffin, and John La Gotta.

Elizabeth Anderson died in 1921 and the aging artist continued to live on in his quirky top floor studio-apartment.   The bathroom was encrusted with abalone shells, the fireplace was constructed of rock crystal and at least one room was done with Louis XV paneling.  It was described by The New York Times as “one of the most beautiful in the country.”

When the Schwartz Company asked for a re-negotiated lease in 1923, lowering the rent, Anderson agreed.  It seemed like a good idea but it would cause major problems for the artists before long.  The new lease provided Anderson $70,000 per year and half of the rental above $130,000.  In turn he rented his own apartment for $5,000 for five years with the right to renew “upon giving thirty days’ notice before the lease expired.”

Anderson forgot about the “giving thirty days’ notice” part.

In May 1928 the 78-year old artist was slapped with an eviction notice.  He was told to leave the building that he built and still owned.   Anderson stood firm and took his leasees to court, eventually winning the legal battle.

Portrait painter Leon Gordon occupied the 8th floor of the Beaux Arts Studios on April 3, 1938.  Neither Gordon nor his wife were at home when a fire started in the studio that night.  It spread rapidly, quickly reaching the 9th floor apartments of the now 89-year old Anderson where The Times said were “valuable tapestries, paintings and expensive furniture.” 

Artist Thomas Bull, whose studio was on the 7th floor, discovered the fire and alerted other residents,   Fifty tenants crowded the street when the firemen arrived and by now flames were shooting out of the 8th floor windows.  The building suffered damage when the fire broke through the roof.  Chunks of terra cotta fell away from the façade; one piece denting a fire engine.

By 9:45 p.m. when the fire was finally brought under control, thousands of dollars in artwork had been destroyed.

Gordon returned home to survey the devastation of his studio saying that the paintings and other artworks “were worth a quarter of a million dollars to me.”  The studio of Lewis Herzog and its valuable works of art were heavily damaged.  The Times noted that “Many of the thirty-nine other studios in the building were damaged by water seeping down to the fifth floor.”

According to Fire Marshall Brophy the damage was “incalculable.”

By 1939 the Studios (lower left), once the tallest building in the area, was dwarfed by stair-stepping skyscrapers.  But the northern light across the park remained.  -- photo NYPL Collection
Abraham Archibald Anderson died in April 1940 at the age of 93. Although his daughter, Eleanor A. Campbell, quickly sold the building to a corporation, it continued to attract artists.  A year later in May French painter, sculptor and filmmaker Fernand Leger moved in.  At the time other artists like Kurt Seligmann, Florine Stettheimer and photographer Thomas Bouchard had studios here.

Eventually the Beaux Arts Studios became less a home to artists than to other creative forces.  The Don Elliott recording studios were here through the 1970s and when a young, ambitious clothing designer looked for her first studio in 1975, she chose the Beaux Arts Studio.  It would be the beginning of Liz Claiborne’s fashion empire.

In the late 1990s, with the building filled with interior designers, photographers and clothing designers, the owners spent nearly $5 million to restore the lobby ceiling, clean the façade and tone down the gaudy shop fronts.

photo by Alice Lum
With minor alterations, other than the obliteration of the street level along 6th Avenue, the Beaux Arts Studios is remarkable preserved.  It was designated a New York City landmark in 1988.


  1. My uncle, architect J. Gordon Carr - several buildings in the 1939 World's Fair - also had offices in the building in the 1940 and 1950s. My family spent a night in his office's apartment about the middle of that period. He was a people watcher. Standing out on his balcony one day he looked down and wondered why a crowd was gathering below and looking up. Realized later they were waiting for him to Jump. He didn't.

  2. The ziggurat in the background of the 2nd-to-last photo looks worthy of a post of its own.

  3. I have been the Property Manager of Bryant Park Studios, 80 West 40th Street since 1998.
    This is a great article, including a lot of information that we did not know about. One correction however,
    The name of the building has always been The Bryant Park Studios, however for some time there was a famous
    Restaurant/Bar on the Ground Floor and the Basement called the Beaux Arts Cafe, of course named after the
    French Architectural style of the building, for a while the building was referred to as The Beaux Arts Building
    as a result of this.
    Over the last 15 years we have made great progress restoring as much of the property as able, the North East
    ground floor corner must still be done. In 2008 we uncovered an original 10 x 15 Tiffany's Skylight on the Roof and
    had it restored. The abalone shells and Crystal Fireplace in the Penthouse West suite have all survived and are in
    fine shape. The Building is actually 10 floors, but has double height ceilings from the 6th floor up.
    As more glass skyscrapers rise around us each year, we find it makes Bryant Park Studios all the more glorious.

    Dave Seeve

  4. My grandfather Celestino Corsi worked there as a carpenter, found that from his 1917 draft registration.