Monday, May 27, 2013

The Lost 1858 10th Street Studios Bldg. -- No. 51 West 10th Street

On November 10, 1938 Berenice Abbott captured the building -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In the decade prior to the Civil War the concept of American art was preposterous to most collectors.  Haughty European art connoisseurs dismissed the idea and snobbish American collectors lined their picture galleries with imported and antique works.  It would not be until 1878, when an American art section was included in the Paris Exposition, that the Continent took notice.  The New-York Tribune noted that year “It was the real initiation of the French people into a realization that such a thing as American art existed.”

But in 1857 that realization was a long way off.  So James Boorman Johnston’s idea that year of a studio building solely for artists was astonishingly forward-thinking.

Johnston was a well-to-do real estate speculator living at No. 56 West 10th Street in a fashionable neighborhood just north of Washington Square.  He understood the plight of artists—they lived mostly in boarding houses and rented barely-serviceable rooms with poor natural light as studios.  He envisioned a residential/studio building designed specifically for artists with a large communal gallery for exhibiting their works.

Johnston sought out 30-year old Richard Morris Hunt, an architect who had just returned to America two years earlier.  Hunt had distinguished himself as the first American to study at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and had supervised the renovation of the Louvre for Napoleon III.
Hunt was given the commission to design the 10th Street Studios at No. 51 West 10th Street, across the street from Johnston’s residence.   

Hunt’s Parisian schooling was evident.  The Studio Building took the form of a French-style hollow square.

The brick-faced building was not showy—in fact years later, in 1887, the New-York Tribune would say “At a glance one might almost take it for an average West Side primary or grammar school."  Instead the design focused on function.  Expansive windows flooded the studios with sunlight.  The inner openings looked out onto the glass roof of the gallery. 

The decorative elements of the three-story fa├žade were accomplished by creative brickwork and a few touches of stone.  The Crayon, in January 1858, lamented the mediocre decoration.  “The front of the building is wholly constructed of brick; its ornamentation, such as the window-mouldings, pilasters, cornices, etc., being developed in that material.  The opportunity does not afford a chance to display the beauty of brick-work in all its fullness, but it indicates use of brick which we hope will become more general.”

A photograph taken shortly after the building was completed looks amazingly like Abbott's shot 80 years later.
“The north and south sides…have two sets of windows, inside and outside,” reported The Sun. “The east and west tiers front only on the open court.  The north and south sides, alone, are used for studios proper.  The rest of the building is given up to sleeping and living rooms.”

The twenty-five rooms were available in two sizes:  20 by 30 feet, and 20 by 15 feet.  Each was provided with a coal-burning iron stove and adjoining studios were connected by doors which could be thrown open for individual showings.

The red brick building was highly anticipated and although it was not completed until mid-1858, by January 1 of that year many of the studios were already occupied.  A rent book documented the first tenants beginning on January 6, 1858—a list of now-acclaimed artists:  John LaFarge, Frederick E. Church, J. F. Kensett, J. W. Casilear, Sandford R. Gifford, Jervis McEntee and W. S. Haseltine.  The men paid an average rent of $200 per year – about $4,000 today (or $330 a month).

As the building was completed, the studios filled.  “Nor was the building given over exclusively to painters and sculptors,” noted The Sun years later.  “In the fall of 1858 at the earnest solicitation of several aspirants for architectural knowledge, Richard Morris Hunt took one of the studios and fitted it up as an architectural atelier.”  Hunt’s architectural school—the first in America—began with four students and before long would list among its pupils George B. Post, William R. Ware, Frank Furness, Henry Van Brunt and Charles D. Gambrill.

Normally, on Saturday afternoons the studios were neatened up and afternoon receptions were held from 1:00 to 5:00.  Studio doors were thrown opened and the public was invited to stroll through the building inspecting the paintings and sculptures.  For the most part the visitors were stylishly dressed society women who could afford art and had the leisure time for such pursuits; and the artists reportedly trimmed their beards and dressed for the occasion.

When Frederick Church showed his masterful Heart of the Andes here in 1859, crowds lined 10th Street waiting for their turn to view it.  Church exhibited the painting in typical Victorian style, surrounded by potted palms and illuminated by gas lamps.

Church's Heart of the Andes created a sensation at the 10th Street Studios --
Twice a year formal exhibitions were staged in the grand, glass-domed gallery.  The 10th Street Studio Building became the most prestigious address for artists and the waiting list grew.  Through the 1860s and into the '70s artists like Winslow Homer, William Bradford, W. H. Beard, Homer D. Martin, and Worthington Whittredge were added to the tenant list.  To accommodate the demand for space, in 1872 an annex at No. 55 West 10th Street was added to the original building.

Well-dressed ladies examine paintings at a reception in 1869 -- Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (copyright expired)
In 1879 James Boorman Johnston conveyed the Studio Building to his brother, John Taylor Johnston.  The artists could not have hoped for a better landlord; John Taylor Johnston was the founding president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  That same year esteemed artist William Merritt Chase returned from Europe and moved in.  He initially occupied a small studio on the ground floor, but he wanted more.   He envisioned painting grand, oversized paintings and needed more space.  The exhibition gallery was transformed for him into a spectacular, two-story sky-lit studio.

Henry Rankin Poore later remembered “I well remember how Chase, small of stature and bristling with enthusiasm, had walked up and down this sumptuous apartment declaring that he had secured a big place because he wanted to do big compositions; but they never came.  Chase was too much of a technician for big enterprises.”
Whether those big enterprises came or not, the gallery was gone.  The Sun would later remark that “the old days were over and a new era began.”  The New-York Tribune bemoaned the loss.  “The annual receptions formerly held by the artists in the Tenth Street Studio Building will be remembered as among the pleasantest occurrences of the art season.  They were designed to afford opportunities to friends of the artists and other invited guests for a leisurely inspection of the pictures before they were sent to the Academy.  The receptions were formerly held in the exhibition hall, on the first floor, now occupied by W. M. Chase as a studio.”

Chase was undeniably eccentric, filling the studio with thousands of items and decorating in lavish Victorian style.  Henry Rankin Poore recalled visiting the studio shortly after Chase moved in.  “One’s knock was then answered by a negro in a red fez; the door as it opened automatically gave forth music from a stringed instrument which died away in the screech of macaws and parrots; a greyhound stretched himself from a polar rug; in each corner were canopied divans; the whole great apartment was a riot of color.”

Chase's greyhound lounges at his feet in the sun-drenched studio -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Interestingly, Chase used his studio as a subject or background for at least a dozen paintings and it became known popularly as “Chase’s Tenth Street Studio.”  He quickly took the lead among the artists and his studio became a gathering place.  For a decade the meetings of the Society of American Artists were held here, and The Art Club was organized that included himself, Saint Gaudens, Church, and other eminent artists.

Chase's "The Tenth Street Studio" was one of about twelve paintings depicting the space -- the St. Louis Museum of Art

The building was without question the most famous studio building in America.  On October 10, 1887 The Evening World described it succinctly.  “The Studio Building, West Tenth street, is a painter's Bohemia.  The studios are working places, without much bric-a-brac, or tapestries, or old carved wood.”

By now rents had gone up.  That year the New-York Tribune noted “A good studio in West Tenth-st., twelve by sixteen feet, perhaps, rents for about $400 a year.  Some go as high as $500.  William M. Chase, who has a ground floor one on the north side and the use, too, of the old skylight gallery, pays $1,000 a year for both.”

Once in the building, artists were loath to leave.  “J. G. Brown has been here over twenty years and all the tenants, so the agents say, stick until they give up studios altogether,” reported the Tribune.  “The demand is brisk for rooms here, many of them being now pledged several years in advance.”

In 1893 John Taylor Johnston died and the building passed to his son, J. Herbert Johnston.  Two years later William Merritt Chase decided to give up his magnificent, famous studio to travel to Madrid with students.   He held a farewell banquet for his friends in the studio, which was specially decorated for the event, and then auctioned off his all his possessions.  The Sun later wrote “Almost the very plates from which they ate were carried away to go under the hammer, but Chase’s serene hospitality lasted until an unusually late hour—a courageous climax, an undaunted, spirit.”

On January 6, 1896 The Sun reported on the auction.  “William M. Chase, N. A., is pretty widely known, not alone by his own works, which are many and interesting, nor by his pupils only, but as much by reason of his having had for years, in the old Tenth street studio building, the one conspicuous show studio of the town.”

For the auction, Chase's studio was recreated in the American Art Galleries on 23rd Street.  “The unconventional and picturesque effect of his former workshop has been reproduced in a measure, and the result is a public display that is not alone interesting to the connoisseur and collection, but is important as affording opportunity to our public museums to acquire some few worthy paintings and art objects,” said the newspaper.  It listed some of the nearly 1,800 items in the catalog, including 200 paintings, 600 finger rings (his collection of rings, said The Sun, was “not unknown to fame”), 40 Russian samovars, “a hundred or more brass candlesticks of very early patterns, besides copper pots and kettles, and an infinite variety of other objects.”

The Sun listed antique glassware, lanterns and lamps, old Spanish and Italian locks, “curiously bound books,” musical instruments, tapestries, draperies, rugs, old furniture and clocks.  The article summed it all up saying “But it is a hopeless task to undertake to describe in detail so various an aggregation of artistical junk.”

If Chase never produced “big enterprises,” the next tenant surely would.  The studio was taken over by sculptor Stirling Calder.  Henry Rankin Poore, visiting Calder in the same studio he had spent time with Chase, noted “To-day it was difficult to realize that one stood at the same threshold…But the West Tenth Street studio was destined in time to bring forth great compositions, all of Calder’s conceptions of heroic size for the San Francisco Exposition being deigned here.”

The building was essentially unchanged in 1914 -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Artists brought, for the most part, positive attention to the 10th Street Studio Building; but one would be an exception.  During World War I etcher William J. Quinlan had his studio here.  A mute since childhood, he drew the attention of military sentinels when he was discovered sketching the approaches to the tunnel to New Jersey on April 4, 1917, just two days before the United States officially entered World War I.

“The soldiers rushed their prize to the Union Hill police station,” reported The Sun the following day.  “He will probably be taken early this morning to Governors Island.”  The newspaper warned that “Painters and etchers, famous and otherwise, would do well these plotting and spying days to choose with skill and care the spots where they set their easels”

In 1920 near panic reigned in the building when it was learned that J. Herbert Johnston planned to sell the property.  The Sun and the New York Herald reported on June 20 “When the rumor began to percolate through the labyrinthine corridors of the Tenth Street Studios that the famous old structure was about to go on the market it is said that ancient tenants appeared in the hallways who had not been seen for decades and whose existence was known only to the rent collector, and that one of the younger artists who had never been known to wear any other costume than smock and sandals was so galvanized into action as actually to appear in a business suit.”

The artists joined together to form The Tenth Street Studios, Inc. and purchased the building.  The New-York Tribune happily reported “the property will be retained in its present form and used for artists’ studios.”

In 1947 Josephine Barry sketched a portion of the facade --  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The reprieve would last for another thirty years.  On May 23, 1952 The New York Times casually remarked that “A Greenwich Village landmark has passed to new control as the result of the sale stock controlling the studio building at 51 West Tenth Street.”

Three years later, on November 3, 1955 the same newspaper reported that “Buyers of the old Tenth Street Studio Building, a Greenwich Village landmark for almost a century, announced yesterday the letting of a contract for demolition of the building.  The razing is to start next Monday  a ten-story and penthouse apartment building for ninety-three families will be erected on the site.”

Within the Tenth Street Studio Building many of the Hudson River School paintings were done.  Here John La Farge, who moved in “before the plaster was dry,” according to The Sun decades earlier, worked for over half a century until his death.  Frederick McMonnies, Winslow Homer and Albert Bierstadt were among the dozens of influential artists who lived and worked here. 

The venerable building, one of the first American structures by Richard Morris Hunt and home to some of Americans most celebrated artists, was demolished with little notice.

A mid-century apartment building replaced the Studio Building.  The old Greek Revival house next door still survives.  photo by the author

many thanks to reader Pam Barkentin for suggesting this post


  1. wow your blog serve as a virtually library for art and architect enthusiasts alike

    1. thanks. I've always admired your photographic work.