The National Arts Club was formed in March 1898 and incorporated the following year. At a time when most collectors and dealers still looked to Europe for artworks, the club sought to "stimulate and guide" the "artistic sense of the American people." It would provide exhibition space not only for the fine arts, but for applied and industrial arts, so crucial for the livelihood of emerging artists.
The National Arts Club was composed not merely of artists, but of architects and supporting businessmen. Its first president was esteemed architect George B. Post. The group acquired and renovated space at No. 37 West 34th Street as its clubhouse.
In 1905 the need for more space prompted the members to relocate. The Record & Guide noted the club "has outgrown its present accommodations, both in membership and business. It has a membership of about 1,300 and the facilities of its galleries, reading rooms, and restaurant are taxed to the limit."
On March 24 the New-York Tribune reported that the National Arts Club had bought "the Samuel J. Tilden house, Nos. 14 and 15 Gramercy Park, one of the most famous dwelling house landmarks in this city." A week later the newspaper added "A new and ingenious combination is proposed by the club. While there have been clubs before, studio buildings and rooms for organization work, never before, it is asserted, has there been a proposition to combine them in a way that will be mutually beneficial."
Included in the club's purchase was Tilden's expansive gardens in the rear which opened onto East 19th Street. "It is the purpose of the organizers...to erect a studio building, with all modern conveniences, and at the same time have in it direct connection with the gallery and an art club in the membership of which are to be found many of the city's best known connoisseurs," said the article.
The Arts Club Studio building would include clubrooms for "affiliated societies," exhibition space, and artist studios. "The studio building in 19th-st. will be so placed as to have the north studio windows toward Gramercy Park. Thus the artist will be assured that his light is forever protected."
Not surprisingly, George B. Post & Son was given the commission to design the Arts Club Studio. On October 29, 1905 the New-York Tribune updated its readers on the progress. The estimated cost of the project, including construction and property costs, was $500,000--or about $15 million today.
"The studio building...will be a fireproof structure, seven stories [sic] high, with a mezzanine floor. It will have a gothic entrance adorned with an arch and columns, and the facade will be of sculptured Belleville gray rock at the first story and ornamental brick with terra cotta trimmings above." Because the northern-facing studios sat higher the former Tilden mansion, their residents could be assured their natural light was protected.
As construction neared completion on July 22, 1906 the New-York Tribune explained "The 19th street structure, which will be known as the Arts Club Studios...contains twelve large studio apartments, comprising studio, sitting room and library, with mezzanine bedrooms and bath, six smaller studio apartments, with studio, alcove and bath, ten bachelor apartments and fifteen single rooms, most of which are rented under long leases." The newspaper predicted it would be "a landmark in the neighborhood of Gramercy Park."
|New-York Tribune, July 22, 1906 (copyright expired)|
The upper floors of George B. Post & Son's 15-story building were relatively unadorned. Faced in brown-brick, the decoration relied mostly on a stone band course above the 13th floor and an elaborate cornice. The architects focused their decorative attention on the neo-Gothic stone base. Here the entrance sat within a pointed Gothic arch. Flanking paneled piers were adorned with Gothic tracery and protruding gargoyles. Directly above the entrance an arcade of pointed arches was topped by a deeply carved frieze of somewhat humorous faces peering from among swirling leaves.
The Arts Club Studio Building immediately staged exhibitions as the studios filled with artists and the clubrooms with arts-related groups. Among the first group to take space was the National Society of Craftsmen, which had its own exhibition space and galleries. The 1913 American Art Directory listed it along with the National Arts Club and Municipal Art Society at the 19th Street address.
They were joined by the American Institute of Graphic Arts before World War I. The conflict diverted the focus of all the groups in the Arts Club Studio building as they turned to supporting the war effort. In the spring of 1918, for instance, the American Institute of Graphic Arts spearheaded the "war savings stamps poster competition" the object of which was "to obtain striking posters and cards for use in promoting the sale of thrift stamps," according to the New-York Tribune on April 14.
As submissions poured in, the posters were exhibited in the Arts Club Studio. At the time of the Tribune's article more than 1,000 had been received, some of them from America's top artists, including Maxfield Parrish, Charles Dana Gibson, photographer Clarence H. White, and Hilda Belcher.
The post-World War I years saw artists like Susan Ricker Knox, Ethel Wright, Jean Hafer and Arthur S. Allen living here. Allen was president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts and was here as late as 1921. In the building at the same time was Joseph Howland Hunt, son of famous architect Richard Morris Hunt and partner with his brother, Richard, in the architectural firm of Hunt & Hunt. He was, as well, the president of the Municipal Art Society.
|Susan Ricker Knox's The Conspirators was most likely done in her studio here.|
During the 1920's and '30's other groups took space in the building, including the League of American Artists, the City Gardens Club, and the National Council for the Protection of Roadside Beauty.
The last quarter of the century saw problems emerging. The Gramercy Park building suffered serious neglect. A 1999 study recommended a $2 million stabilization for the facade. And the problem extended into the Arts Club Studio Building. In 2004 frustrated members of the Arts Club reached out to city agencies, newspapers and preservation groups for help. In a letter to city governmental agencies the members complained that the then-president of the club, O. Aldon James and his brother John were using many of the apartments as storage. With no maintenance, ceilings collapsed from water damage and studios were piled high in trash.
Aldon stepped down in June 2011 and renovations began on the apartments. A spokesman said that they would no longer be necessarily restricted to artists, "but the people who will really want to rent them will be those with a true appreciation for the history of New York.”
|The initials of the National Arts Club appear above the delightful carvings.|
photographs by the author