Friday, April 10, 2020

The 1904 John H. Young Studio -- 536 West 29th Street

Born in 1858 in Michigan, John Hendricks Young trained as a fresco painter before moving into theatrical scenic art and design in 1880.  In 1895 he moved to New York and established a studio in the Grand Opera House on Eighth Avenue at 23rd Street.

Young’s attention to detail made him a favorite among theater producers, among them David Belasco and Florenz Ziegfeld.  By 1902 he had amassed a library of 10,000 photographs and 800 books which he used as historical and geographical reference.  Rather than resort to exotic travel, he sometimes would send requests to American Consuls, paying them for photographs of palaces, gardens, fishermen's huts, statuary and landscapes.  Young also assembled a collection of antique weapons, armor and costumes as reference tools.

When hired for a production Young would initially meet with the producer, who would give him a synopsis of the acts and scenes.  In some cases he read the scripts to ensure that every detail necessary to a scene would be included.  

For each set that was to be designed, he would first assemble a tiny model using the scale of one-half inch to the foot.  They were meticulously fashioned–“the result being a degree of exactitude marvelous to contemplate,” wrote The New York Times in 1902.  Tiny panes of real glass, carved doorways and staircases with diminutive balustrades were all included.

It was this strict adherence to detail that finally required Young to move.  Because he never discarded a model, several hundred of them being numbered and filed on shelves, and because of his ever-increasing reference library of books, photographs and other artifacts his studio was taxed to the limits.  

Early in 1904 he purchased the two-story frame house with a "shed on rear" at No. 536 West 29th Street.  On February 12 architect Arthur G. C. Fletcher filed plans for a "brick and concrete studio building" to cost $8,000 (about $237,000 today).

Completed within the year, Young’s studio followed the basic architectural motif of the neighboring stables.  Double doors on the street level allowed the large frames of painted canvas to be moved out–the average being fifty feet long and thirty feet high.  The great expanse of glass in the large arched fourth floor loft window provided a wash of northern light by which to work.

Here Young and his staff worked on the tiny models (which he said was “a feature of scene painting of which the public is wholly ignorant”) and the full-size backdrops.   The producer was charged separately for different aspects of the set.  Painting the canvases normally cost $500 (in the neighborhood of $14,700 today), the building of the set by a carpenter was another $400 and a fee for attaching the canvas to the paint frame and removing it again ran about $40.  (The $40 fee had initially been free when Young or his staff did the work, however the Carpenter’s Union complained.)

In August 1910 Young risked losing his studio.  A friend Edward T. Rosenheimer struck a buggy with his automobile, killing a young girl.  To furnish his $25,000 bail Rosenheimer’s mother, Catherine Knobloch put up her home and Young offered his studio, “worth $38,000.”

From his 29th Street studio Young and his staff produced sets and scenery for major productions like Babes in Toyland, Forty-five Minutes From Broadway, and several Ziegfield Follies.

Babes in Toyland opened in The Majestic Theatre in 1903.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1919 John H. Young reorganized the business as Cirker & Robbins Studio, Inc. with partners Mitchell Cirker and Robert N. Robbins.  Why his name was not included in the firm's title is puzzling.  Cirker & Robbins Studio remained in the 29th Street building and continued to produce sets for productions like Hammerstein & Harbach's 1930 Ballyhoo, and the 1937 plays Penny Wise and Brown Sugar.

Following John H. Young's death in 1944 the 29th Street building became home to the Eugene B. Dunkel Studios, another theatrical set design firm.   Eugene Dunkel had been especially noted for executing the sets for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1930 to 1940.

Born in what was Russian Turkestan in 1891, he had studied painting in Vilna, Moscow and St. Petersburg.  He arrived in New York in 1923.  While he continued to work for dance companies--the Ballet Moderne, American Ballet and others--Dunkel adapted to modern theater.  He was responsible for the sets of Guy Lombardo's first television shows, for instance.  Dunkel was a muralist as well and executed murals for Manhattan restaurants such as the Latin Quarter.

Eugene B. Dunkel died on April 11, 1972 at the age of 81.  By  1982 the studio building was home to Spectrum Associates, Inc., a music video firm.   As the Chelsea neighborhood became increasingly trendy following the opening of the High Line park in 2009 upscale boutiques and galleries took over the former factories and stable buildings.  By 2011 the fashion firm Lopez Knudsen, Inc. had moved into No. 536.

A renovation completed in 2019 converted the former studio building into a three-bedroom private residence.   

The residential renovation left nothing of the former studio space.  photo via
photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. In looking at the brick walls, you can see where the paint frames slid up and down the side walls.