Saturday, February 16, 2013

The 1831 No. 52 West 10th Street

photo by Alice Lum
The quiet block of West 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues had seen much change by the time the Civil War ended.  The modest brick homes of the 1830s built on the eastern fringe of Greenwich Village now shared the block with wide Greek Revival and Ango-Italianate residences.  Although a private stable had elbowed itself in at No. 50; the block off Washington Square retained its respectability.

Among the earliest structures was the handsome Federal home built for carpenter Abner Tucker between 1830 and 1831 at No. 52.  Two stories high with a dormered attic, it reflected Tucker’s successful business.  The Flemish bond brickwork and paneled lintels were extra touches that told the passerby that the family inside could afford a little extra. 

A high stoop with delicate iron railings let to a sophisticated entrance—an eight-paneled door framed by wooden columns and a glazed overlight that allowed sunlight into the foyer.

It was perhaps the coming of the stable next door that changed the fate of the charming little house; but in the last half of the century the parlor floor was gutted and a wide opening gashed into the façade.  The house that had been Abner Tucker’s pride and joy became a stable, as well.  Another door in the back allowed access straight through to the back lot.

The little house gained a gaping door, like the white-painted stable next door, in the second half of the 19th century -- photo by Alice Lum
By the turn of the century William and Alice Evens owned both the stable at No. 52 and the four-story brick house next door at No. 54.  The couple dabbled in real estate, buying and selling houses in the neighborhood and they ran No. 54 as a boarding house.

In 1918 when William Egloff leased the stable, Greenwich Village was luring artists, poets and musicians.  The Washington Square neighborhood filled with artists’ studios, and Bohemian cafes and nightspots sprouted in basements of the surrounding streets.

The widowed Alice Evens sold her 10th Street properties in 1922.  On July 2 the New-York Tribune announced the sale, noting that the two buildings had “been in the possession of the selling family for a great many years.”

photo by Alice Lum
The humiliation of being used as a stable was about to end for the prim little Federal home.  It had been purchased by painter and sculptor Frederick MacMonnies who lived down the block at No. 20 West 10th Street.  MacMonnies paid $25,000 for the building and immediately set to work to convert the ground floor into his studio.  The upper floors would become a spacious apartment.

Although he was also a portraitist, he was best known for his sculptures and was as highly regarded in Europe was at home.  Through his associations with Stanford White and Carrere & Hastings, he received numerous architectural-related commissions, including the spandrel reliefs for White’s Washington Square Arch, the Nathan Hale monument in City Hall Park and several groupings for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Other artists settled on the block and on March 6, 1927 they and other residents were aroused by gunshots and police whistles.  Two doors east of MacMonnies’ studio artist  Juliet Thompson lived at No. 48.  The New York Times reported that “Shots and a chase over the roof of 48 West Tenth Street and adjacent apartment houses aroused members of the artists’ colony in that vicinity early yesterday morning.”

Policemen rushed up the stairs of No. 48 and onto the roof where a chase of three men ensued.  The Times said “The roofs in this block contain a succession of skylights, the top floors being occupied largely by artists.”  Despite the gunfire and commotion, the article reported that “No arrests were made.”

MacMonnies leased the apartment upstairs—in 1931 Baird Hall lived there—and sculpted below.  Among his subjects who posed in the space was Giulio Gatti-Cassazza, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.  When Gatti-Casazza announced his forthcoming retirement, Paul D. Cravath commissioned MacMonnies to sculpt a bust to be placed in the foyer of the opera house.  For five weeks in 1935 Gatti-Cassazza visited the studio on West 10th Street for sittings.

MacMonnies died on March 22, 1937.  His studio was taken over by modern dancers Bruhs Mero and Felicia Sorel .  Called the Dance Gallery, it served to showcase their avante garde routines—making West 10th Street just a little more Bohemian than it already was. 

On June 30, 1942 The Brooklyn Eagle described the weekly “Sunday Nights at 9” at the Dance Gallery.  “You go in through doors large as an entrance to a stable, pass through a pleasant room with uneven floor, sit down in one of some 25 or 30 seats and you are in a studio with polished floor and a skylight far above.  The lights go out and in a moment the darkness is cut by a sliver of light fro a little spot, and there before you in the beam one of them is dancing.  It’s pretty lovely.”

The article described Mero’s “dream dance” that began half-way up a ladder, and Sorel’s dancing to “short blue poems of Langston Hughes.” 

Other artists followed.  Sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose studio was at 33 MacDougal Alley, lived here for a period at the beginning of World War II, and sculptor Concetta Scaravaglione used the studio space several years later.

In 1954 the end came for artists and dancers in the former stable.  It was converted to a garage “for one motor vehicle,” according to the Department of Buildings, with a one-family dwelling above.  Through all of  its incarnations, the façade of the delightful Federal house remained perfectly preserved (well, except for the stable door).

The entrance retains the original paneled door, the prim dormers survive unscathed, and the iron railing with its well-worn boot scraper still remains after nearly 200 years of use.

No. 52 survives as part of a treasure-trove of architectural gems along the block -- photo by Alice Lum

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