In 1903 American impressionist painter Robert Vonnoh and his wife, sculptress Bessie Potter Vonnoh, took studios in the newly-completed 67th Street Studios building at No. 27 West 67th Street. The 14-story co-operative structure was constructed especially as artists’ residences and studios.
The following year construction began on a similar studio building, The Atelier. It was the second domino to fall in a trend that would soon give the 67th Street block between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue the reputation as a “studio colony.”
In 1905 Robert Vonnoh joined the movement when he commissioned architects Pollard & Steinam to design a studio building at Nos. 39 and 41. On November 5 that year The New York Times advised that plans had been filed for what would be called the Colonial Studios. The architects had cleverly addressed the artists’ need for light and ventilation in designing the deep building.
“It is to be fourteen stories high in front, seven in the centre, and ten in the rear,” reported the newspaper.” Pollard & Steinam estimated the cost at $200,000 (about $5.5 million in 2015).
Like the other studio buildings on the block, Vonnoh’s Colonial Studios would be a cooperative. On June 26, 1906 as the building rose, he advertised in The Sun “YOUR OWN STUDIO APARTMENT; opportunity to become a stockholder in an attractive and safe investment of $8,000 to $15,000.” By now the construction cost had risen to $275,000.
The Colonial Studios was finished in 1907, a neo-Renaissance structure influenced by the Arts and Crafts style also seen in other studio buildings on the block. The two-story rusticated limestone base included a classical pediment supported by planar pilasters. Handsome double-height oriels, clad in pressed copper, overlapped the base and the third floor. Above three projecting stone sections clung to a brown brick façade. The deeply-overhanging cornice was supported by hefty copper brackets.
Unlike other studio buildings on West 67th Street, the owner-residents in the Colonial were a mixed group. Along with the expected artists was Dr. Lindsley F. Cocheu, who moved into the building 1908; and pianist Agnes Osborne who presented pupil Fanny Elizabeth Cass in a recital in her studio here on Friday, March 20 that same year.
Another non-artist in the building was Frederic Dean, a lawyer. He leased his seventh floor studio to Mrs. Mary Castle in the summer of 1909. Mary had recently separated from her husband and had been staying in the home of her cousin and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. William B. Craig.
In the brief time she lived there, Mary became infatuated with Craig, who was 35 years old. It was possibly this awkward situation that led to her leaving the Craig household and moving into the Colonial. Mary Castle’s passion for William Craig progressed to stalking and, finally, to violence on August 3.
The New York Times noted “She had a handsomely appointed apartment on the seventh floor, where she kept house with one servant.” Apparently William Craig had, at least initially, contributed to Mary’s affections. Other residents of the building told reporters that he had been one of her most frequent callers. “The lawyer, it was said, was here several times a week, and frequently took her out in the afternoons.”
The newspaper described the 36-year old Mary Castle as “rather fine looking, with plentiful dark-brown hair and large dark eyes and regular features.” On the afternoon of August 3 when she left the apartment, she carried with her a “capacious handbag” in which was, “besides many articles of feminine use, nearly a full box of cartridges.” The bullets were for the cheap revolver that was also in the purse.
Mary found William Craig on 34th Street, outside of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Patrons later said Craig appeared at first startled, then seemed to enter the hotel in an effort to “get rid of the woman.” She followed him into the crowded lobby and “were soon in an animated conversation.” The Times reported “the man seemed to be urging the woman to leave him alone, she half pleading and half demanding to be heard.”
Craig rushed through the corridors, closely pursued by Mary; “he several times throwing up his hands as if in deprecation.”
As they passed a bank of elevators, the doors of one began to close. William Craig bolted inside in an attempt to lose Mary Castle. The Times reported “He had one foot in the car when the woman, apparently seeing that he certainly intended to leave her standing alone in the corridor, quickly drew from the black handbag she carried a small revolver. Before the lawyer could offer the least resistance she had fired.”
Inside the elevator was, coincidentally, E. R. Carrington, a detective from Montreal. He and the elevator boy, William J. Fitzgerald, were momentarily stunned as Craig staggered into the cab and Mary followed. As the car shot up to the seventh floor, Mary desperately tried to shoot Craig again while Carrington struggled to wrest the weapon from her grasp. She was finally disarmed and Fitzgerald returned the elevator to the lobby.
While the drama was playing out in the moving elevator, the lobby had been a scene of panic. Now it turned to one of curiosity. “The return of the elevator was the signal for the throng, many of whom were women dressed in bright Summer garb, to gather about the spot,” said The Times.
Maids scrambled to bring pillows and cushions to prop up Craig and house detectives worked to calm the crowd. An inspection was made of Craig’s condition—the near range of the shot feared to be fatal. Unbelievably, his brown suit had a clear-cut bullet hole and the fabric was scorched from the closeness to the firearm. But the inside pocket held a heavy silver fountain pen, its “mountings bent and twisted by the impact of the ball.”
The bullet had struck the fountain pen which had taken the impact. Later, even more astoundingly, the bullet was found in the same pocket.
Mary Castle, nearly hysterical, was taken away along with Craig to the police station. In the car going to the station house she sobbed repeatedly, “He was the cause of all my troubles!”
Twice at the station she tried to break free and get to Craig. And when he left she exclaimed “He loves me. He will come back tonight and bail me out. I have no fear of that.”
Rather predictably it was not Craig who bailed out his attempted assassin, but Mary’s landlord, Frederic Dean. In the meantime, Mary’s cousin had little compassion and refused to believe there was anything to the affair.
“It is a clear case of ingratitude,” she told reporters. “We took this woman into our house and did everything we could for her, but she became infatuated with Mr. Craig, and this is the result of it. I know well enough what she says, but it is not true.”
Among the resident artists was Charles Courtney Curran. The painter was born in Kentucky in 1861 and by the time he moved into the Colonial (of which he was secretary and treasurer) he had garnered many prestigious awards including several medals from Expositions ranging from the 1893 Chicago Columbia Exposition to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. He was also an accomplished fencer.
Another was Isabel Vernon Cook, who preferred to be known as Mrs. Jerome C. Cook. Isabel had studied in Paris and now lectured on art and travel as well. The Woman’s Who’s Who of America later mentioned in 1915 that she “Favors woman suffrage.”
She had a comrade in painter Harriet Sophia Phillips. The colorful artist had been trained in Germany and Paris and had a broad range of interests, including woman suffrage. Among the entertainments she hosted in her studio were suffragist teas.
But not everyone in the building shared the women’s passion. Richard Barry was, as described by The New York Times in 1911 “the ardent anti-suffragist.” A writer of magazine articles, he raised the ire of the theatrical community and the Woman’s Suffrage Party when his article appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in March 1911 entitled “Why Women Are Paid Less Than Men.”
The highly-sexist article included passages like:
The chorus girl gets as much as the chorus man. She ought to have more, for who cares anything about the chorus man It is the chorus girl that draws people to the musical shows Again, the reason her pay is not more is that the supply of her is seemingly inexhaustible. Besides, she is not dependable; she may be on hand for a performance; she may not be.
If the theatrical community did not find that, alone, insulting; it definitely took offense to “Very few persons on the stage know how to think. In fact, few of them know how to feel, though they all make some sort of bluff at it.”
The Players, the Gramercy Park club for those in the theatrical profession, dropped Richard Barry from its rolls.
Mrs. Barry shared her husband’s convictions and on March 23, 1913 signed the petition that was sent to Albany. It began with the sentence, “We, your petitioners, believe that the present favorable status of women in this State is just and right because we are women.” One may imagine that the corridor conversations in the Colonial Studios building between Mrs. Jerome C. Cook or Harriet S. Phillips and Mrs. Richard Barry were polite and short.
While some residents of the Colonial Studios busied themselves with political issues, Bernetta Miller had more thrilling adventures on her mind. She had been a bookkeeper in Canton, Ohio but moved to New York at the age of 22 in 1912 to pursue a dream.
She procured an apartment in the Colonial Studios and enrolled in the Moissant School. What her family did not know was that it was an aviation school. Bernetta was still a novice student on June 21, 1912, having only had three lessons. To date she had “not yet attempted anything more difficult than running an aeroplane over the ground,” said The Evening World the following day.
To ensure that the plane stayed on the ground, the wing elevators were disabled. Newspapers gave conflicting accounts on what went wrong. According to The Sun, “a piece of wood that blocked the elevating plane dropped out;” while The Evening World said “some one removed the fastening.”
Whatever the case, Bernetta Miller suddenly found her monoplane shooting into the air. “She retained her presence of mind,” said The Evening World, “and before the monoplane had ascended higher than about twenty feet, shut off the motor.”
The airplane nose-dived to earth where it “pancaked” to the ground. The Sun reported “Miss Miller climbed out of the machine somewhat frightened, but unhurt.” The Evening World deemed the aircraft “completely wrecked” and said “Miss Muller [sic] was not injured, and jumping up ran for the hangar to escape the newspaper men.”
A much more tragic story played out in 1916. Socially prominent Estelle Garrett Baker, society editor of The Atlanta Georgian and a member of the well-known Garrett family, was in the process of divorcing her husband. She slipped away from Georgia press to stay with her widowed sister, Emma Garrett Boyd, who lived in the Colonial with her 10-year old son, Spencer Boyd.
Although Estelle seemed, for the most part, normal; she gave her sister a scare on the day she moved in when she bolted up and tried to snatch a firearm from the mantelpiece, “but was prevented,” as Emma later recalled. Following that episode, Emma made sure that Estelle’s bedroom window was always locked.
Estelle was undergoing treatment for “nervous shock” by Dr. Foster Kennedy. He mostly prescribed rest for her condition. The treatments seemed to be working. On Tuesday February 22, 1916 she seemed happy at breakfast and the New-York Tribune reported “She romped with Mrs. Boyd’s children and played the piano so cheerfully that her sister was not surprised at her fatigue in the evening, when she said she would not eat with family. She retired to her bedroom.”
Estelle told her sister what she would have for dinner and asked her to have it sent up from the dining room. Before going down to the dining room with Spencer at around 6:00, Emma double checked the window lock.
Fifteen minutes later “a chauffeur ran into the building and told the switchboard operator that a woman was lying dead on the sidewalk.” Estelle had unlocked the bedroom window an thrown herself from the 10th floor apartment. Her skull was crushed and her legs broken.
The Colonial Studios continued to attract successful artists, including Theresa F. Bernstein, Maurice Molarsky and Clara Weaver Parrish; and in at least two cases, opera singers.
Mme. Rappold, former Metropolitan Opera singer was leasing the studio of Mrs. Jerome C. Cook in 1922 when her habits prompted the New York Clipper to report on September 13 “Whatever charm an opera diva’s golden notes may possess when wafted over the footlights during regulation opera hours does no obtain during the wee small hours of the morning, according to the owners and tenants of a studio apartment at No. 39 West Sixty-Seventh Street.”
Mme. Rappold paid $300 a month rent on the apartment and had reportedly spent $2,500 in redecorating. But Isabel Cook received numerous complaints, she said, from tenants who objected to her after-midnight concerts.
The diva laughed at the tempest, saying “I am going to stay…The whole affair amuses me.”
Mrs. Jerome C. Cook was less amused. She filed eviction proceedings against her tenant, whose lease was up on October 1. The New-York Tribune reported “Mrs. Cook declared, however, that she had started the action against the soprano not because of other tenants, but because she had made plans for some time to make the apartment her home after October 1.” The newspaper noted that the majority of the tenants were “singers and painters.”
Eminent contralto Mme. Marguerite d’Alvarez lived here by 1925. Early that year she received a “wild letter” from a perfumer who demanded immediate payment for expensive scents sold to “Mme. D’Alvarez.” The curious invoice prompted an investigation and the opera star was soon to be shocked.
In February it was found that Mrs. Harriet Bridgeford, “tall and impressive,” according to The Times, had been impersonating Mme. D’Alvarez for years. Among her ruses, the woman, who bore a striking resemblance to the singer, went about the city selling cheap silk as quality goods under the diva's name. She was arrested on February 10, 1925 after Marguerite d’Alvarez pleaded with police that she “was causing her much embarrassment.”
After living in the Colonial Studios for more than two decades, Harriet S. Phillips died of pneumonia here at the age of 78 on July 30, 1928.
Other artists to live in the building were Charles Allen Gilbert, best known for his magazine illustrations; modern artist Walter Pach who moved in in 1932; A. Phimiser Proctor, Wheeler Williams and John Alonzo Williams.
By now described as “a leading American artist,” Charles C. Curran was still living in the building in 1942 when he died at the age of 81.
In 1962 the building took on another face when The Drama Studio moved its headquarters here. It staged live productions for several years.
Outwardly little has changed to the Colonial Studios. Like most of the studio buildings along the West 67th Street block, it now is home to fewer artists and more wealthy residents attracted by the unusual layouts.
photographs by the author.
photographs by the author.