Saturday, August 24, 2013

No. 3 Washington Square North

For nearly a century some of America's most famous artists passed through the doors of No. 3 -- photo by Alice Lum

In the mid-19th century, the problem of unwanted babies born to unwed mothers was a serious problem.  The stigma surrounding a bastard birth often resulted in infants being abandoned on the steps of churches of orphanages, or worse, simply discarded.  Dr. Parry told the Social Science Association in 1871 “The mothers become outcasts from society if their indiscretion is made public, so that but one of two courses is left for them to pursue—to rid themselves of the burden by criminal means, or to abandon it.”

The death rate of the foundlings in New York at the time was around 78 percent.  However the New-York Tribune maintained on May 13 of that year “Death, however, is not the saddest fate awaiting these wretched ‘step-children of Nature.’  The hereditary taint touches soul as well as body.  A bastard child implies not only vice in the past, but hints too often at vice to come.”

To address the problem, at least in part, the Sisters of Charity established the New York Foundling Hospital on October 11, 1869.  On that same night a baby was left at the doorstep of their temporary home on East 12th Street.   Within two months they had taken in 123 unwanted babies and on January 1, 1870 they took over the former mansion of J. Thorne at No. 3 Washington Square North.

The house was one of a row of elegant Federal style mansions that ringed the fashionable park.  The nuns’ tireless work was admired by most; however some Victorian matrons felt that harboring the spawn of illicit intercourse a bad idea.   Mrs. Ernestine L. Rose told a meeting of the Sorosis that she felt foundling hospitals “would tend to increase the crime.”

The Sun quoted her as saying “The evil would never be remedied until men were punished as well as women.  Women were ostracized, deprived of every hope for the future, while man, the enticer, seducer, the perpetrator of the crime, held up his head as high as ever, and was to be met the same as before in the church, the state, and worse yet, in the drawing rooms.”

Despite some backlash, the Foundling Hospital thrived and in 1873 moved to larger quarters on East 68th Street.  The nuns’ departure was the first step in what would be the end of the aging mansion on the still-fashionable Washington Square.  Greenwich Village was quickly becoming the artist colony of New York.  The nearby 10th Street Studios Building had been constructed in 1858 solely to provide housing and proper studio space for artists.

In 1884 the mansion and its stable directly behind were demolished and a studio building erected.   Completed the following year, the four-story, red brick building generally followed the contemporary apartment building plan.  A traditional stoop rose above a deep basement rose to the offset entrance that led to the stairway hall.  Floor-to- ceiling windows allowed ample natural light to flood the spaces.  Brownstone and terra cotta trim embellished the fa├žade.  The extra height of the openings resulted in the studio building rising a bit higher than its venerable neighbors.
Large windows allowed ample natural light into the studios -- photo by Alice Lum

Rooms on a lower floor were taken as the clubhouse of the newly-formed Canadian Club.  In 1885 it advertised “The Canadian Club desires all Canadians in New-York to send their names and addresses to its rooms at No. 3 North Washington-square.”   The New York Times called the rooms “very pleasant quarters” and noted on June 28, 1885 they “are not being furnished by Herts Brothers.  The club has enrolled nearly all of the prominent Canadians residing in New-York.”   The opening dinner was held on July 1 of that year but, unfortunately, Herts Brothers was apparently late in delivery and there was no furniture.  “A few temporary decorations were put up in the large parlor last night, and two long tables were set for about 80 persons,” said The New York Times.

The studio building rose slightly above the old mansions -- photo Bryon Company from the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the meantime the building filled with some of the city’s most esteemed artists.  In 1886 Lyell Car, who studied in l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris was here, along with Will H. Low, Walter Shirlaw and Abbott Handerson Thayer.  Shirlaw would remain in the building through the turn of the century.

Dennis Miller Bunker took the stop floor studio in 1889.  Among the works he painted here was his acclaimed “Jessica.”  He described his new living and working quarters as “a funny little hole” that was “perched way up like a pigeon-house.” Other artists in the building at the time included Thomas Dewing and Charles A. Platt.

By 1893 Mary E. Tillinghast lived and worked here.  The financially-comfortable stained glass artist and decorator hired Hugo Cedarberg in 1892 as her bookkeeper.  The 28-year old accountant, whom The New York Times described as “a Swede,” gained Tillinghast’s “most implicit confidence.”

Her confidence was shaken when she looked over her canceled checks in March 1893.  She did not remember signing a few and took a trip to her bank on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street.   Mary Tillinghast and the bank president, A. D. Frizzel, examined over her account and found $1,200 worth of checks made out to Cedarberg and endorsed by him.  The forgery would amount to about $25,000 today.

The Swedish bookkeeper was arrested and he explained his crimes.  Some of the money had been used “for purchases made in fitting up a good style his bachelor quarters in West Fifty-seventh Street,” said The New York Times.  “A good part of the money had been absorbed by a young woman named Nellie Audley, the rent of whose flat at 101 West Thirty-eighth Street he had been paying for some months.  He had also presented this young woman with a diamond pin, for which he paid $150.”

Mary took greater care in watching her bank books and continued with her art.   That same year she received a gold medal at the Chicago Exposition, and two years later earned a bronze medal at the Cotton States Exposition.  By the time she died in her studio here in 1912 it was reported “there is hardly a large city in the United States which does not own some specimen of her craft.”

While architecturally up-to-date in most respects, the building was not heated.  The artists worked in spaces warmed only by cast iron stoves and they lugged hods of coal from the basement level up to their studios.  While Mary Tillinghast worked on stained glass windows, other artists products oils, water colors and sculptures.

In October 1899 Florian Peixxoto completed a large work depicting the landing of Christopher Columbus for the new Columbian Theatre in Cincinnati.  The artist completed the 30 by 10 foot canvas in less than a month, causing The New York Times to call it “a feat hardly less remarkable than that of Millais when he painted his first Pre-Raphaelite picture.”

Sculptor and painter Benjamin C. Porter moved in just after the turn of the century, as did Frank Wilbert Stokes.    By the time he moved in in 1902, Stokes was widely known for having accompanied Admiral Peary on his Arctic exploration expeditions in 1892 and 1893.  In 1901 through 1902 he joined the expedition of Dr. Otto Nordenskjold to the Antarctic.  While on these trips, he produced dozens of canvases of the aurora borealis, icebergs, arctic animals and Eskimo life with titles like Blueberg, Aurora Australis, The Great Inland Ice, and The Draed and Spiral Form of Aurora.

In 1909 Stokes would complete a series of murals of the Arctic in day and night and of the life of the Eskimos of Smith Sound for the American Museum of Natural History.

As World War I erupted in Europe, other artists established their studios here; among them were Mary Foote, Walter Ernest Tittle, and the new-comer Edward Hopper, who took the sky-lit top floor studio that Bunker had called his “funny little hole.”  In 1918 the virtually unknown Hopper entered The Sun’s “Ship Poster Competition” and won the $300 first prize by unanimous consent.  The anti-German poster titled “Smash the Hun” depicted an American factory worker welding a heavy sledge hammer against upturned bayonets.  The Sun called it “Strong, direct, easy to comprehend and easy to remember.  It gives its message in true poster style.”

Hopper's propaganda poster won first prize --photo

A student of Robert Henri of the Ashcan School, Hopper had sold only one other work to date.  It would be another five years before he sold his second painting when the Brooklyn Museum bought one in 1923.  This was the break that set Edward Hopper on the road to artistic fame.  Eventually fifty-five museums would own his paintings, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney, the Chicago Art Institute, the Boston, Philips Memorial Gallery, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Terra cotta and stone trim provide the facade's restrained ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum
By now the Washington Square neighborhood had changed.  The wide mansions were broken up into apartments, or razed for modern buildings.  Frank Stokes complained to The Evening World on July 19, 1920, “The new art set of the Village, with their bizarre tea rooms, advanced art and letters, have seized upon the place.  As a result the would-be Bohemians have been attracted to the Quarter for ‘its atmosphere’ and real artists are being crowded out.”

Stokes and Hopper, however, had no intention of being crowded out and hung firmly on to their still-primitive studios.  Decades later, in 1955, The New York Times would say “In his top-floor studio, warmed by a pot-bellied stove for which Mr. Hopper lugs coal from the basement, he works long over each picture.  He rarely turns out more than three oils a year.”

But the artists’ studios were threatened earlier when in 1946 New York University purchased the building.   The school was flooded with former GI's home from the war and additional space was direly needed.  The university told reporters that when leases were up, “the space will help relieve congestion from the record enrollment of 38,500 students.”

Faced with eviction, the artists dug in.  On February 4, 1947 The New York Times defined the “battle lines” with New York University on the offensive “bursting with 12,000 GI students” against “the tenants at No. 3, whose lofty, chilly halls have long been cherished by artists, poets and others who don’t mind a bit of discomfort if the atmosphere is right.”

Artist Josephine Barry sketched the building, in 1947, when its fate was threatened by NYU -- from the Collection of the Museum of the City of New York,

The university stood its ground, intent on eviction.  But the artists were equally committed.  “But we’d always been led to believe we could stay here always,” portrait artist Jane Gray told reporters.  “Walter Pach, who once taught fine arts at N.Y.U., lives here, and Edward Hopper, and F. W. Stokes, who was the artist with Peary in the Arctic.

“We can’t just slink out—even if there were other places to be had with such good lighting.  We’re going to fight, and if we must go it’ll be with our heads high, knowing that we’ve tried to preserve the tradition.”

The conflict ended up in court.  New York University art instructor Joseph Pollet, a tenant, spoke of the building “where you have to carry your own coal up and your garbage and ashes down, but the north light is perfect and the rent is within an artist’s means.”  Frank Stokes said that his parents and his brother died in the building and he “had expected to remain there the rest of his life.”

In May 1947 New York University received the news that it had lost the law suit over tenant evictions.  The artists could stay.

One-by-one, over the next two decades, the artists would leave—the leases of some terminated only by death.  On February 14, 1955 the 96-year old Frank W. Stokes died.  He had been working on sketches up to the point that he contracted pneumonia only a few days earlier.  In 1967 Edward Hopper died in his top floor studio at the age of 84.  One of his oil paintings, “On My Roof,” had depicted the rusty angles of his skylight from the tar-papered roof.
photo by Alice Lum

The building at No. 3 Washington Square North that had sheltered some of America’s most brilliant artists for more than three quarters of a century became NYU’s Graduate School for Social Work.  And it gained central heating.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. Great post! I passed this building several times when I stayed at a nearby hotel in '98. Good to know some of the great stories from within it's walls and at it's location.

  2. Edmund Wilson also lived there

  3. Wonderful article!!