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How New York City Artists Invented a New Mode of Urban Living

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A studio space in the Sixty-Seventh Street Studios building.
A studio space in the Sixty-Seventh Street Studios building.
Byron Company (New York, NY)

The New York art scene hasn't changed much in 150 years. Fashionable women cram gallery openings. Financiers prowl studios. People queue for hours to see a painting. Parties start after midnight. And artists scramble for studio space.

Earlier generations of artists, though, were not always at war with real estate developers. They actually worked together. New buildings were once constructed just for artists; they financed some themselves. From the 1850s to the 1920s, purpose-built artist studios and apartments sprang up around Manhattan. In the process, artists—true to form—invented a new mode of urban living.

[The Tenth Street Studios. Berenice Abbott. / Museum of the City of New York.]

New York emerged as the center of American art in the mid-19th century. The National Academy hosted exhibitions on lower Broadway and dealers sold European paintings. "A most gratifying fact in connection with the growth of New York," a newspaper observed in 1866, "is the wonderful gain it has recently made in aesthetic culture."

The Tenth Street Studio Building illustrated this shift when it opened in 1857. The first building in the country to be erected specifically for artists, it was not conceived as a way to gentrify a marginal neighborhood, as we assume today, but in response to a dire need for studio space. For all the city's cultural prominence, artists had few good places to work. They made do with dank attics above boardinghouses or dim rooms in the old University Building on Washington Square. James B. Johnson, a wealthy art patron, recognized a market for purpose-built studios with good light.

Johnson commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design the building, located on the north side of 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The young architect had just returned from Paris, where he was the first American to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and would later design mansions like the Breakers in Newport. Hunt's three-story brick building had 25 studios surrounding a large exhibition space capped with skylights. Studios, some with attached bedrooms, rented for $200 to $400 a year ($5,000 to $10,000 today), affordable only to established artists.

[Artists, including John George Brown on 10th Street on the bottom right, at work in their studios. Byron company (New York, NY). / Museum of the City of New York.]

They were quickly snapped up, prompting calls for more such buildings. By 1859, "the studio-building [was] as full as a Broadway omnibus on a rainy day," said the art journal The Crayon. A new one "would be a splendid investment for some capitalist, as there are now more applicants for good studios in this city than can be accommodated."

The Studio Building attracted some of the country's most prominent artists, especially Hudson River School painters like Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt. Winslow Homer worked there in the 1870s. There were also sculptors and writers; Hunt taught architecture in his studio.

Early on, the Studio Building even had a blockbuster show: Church's The Heart of the Andes. The ten-foot canvas, now at the Metropolitan Museum, was displayed in the exhibition hall, illuminated only by gaslights. Over three weeks, 12,000 visitors paid 25 cents to see the painting before it traveled to London, waiting for hours in lines that stretched to Broadway. It sold for $10,000, the highest price ever paid for an American landscape painting.

The Studio Building became known as a sociable artists' colony, covered in florid detail in newspapers. Public receptions were the highlight of its early years. They sound like Chelsea gallery openings today. In 1859, the Times visited one of these stylish events, held a few times each winter:

The great charm…of these receptions is not the pictures, nor the sculpture, nor the drawings, but the company. You find yourself, on entering the rooms, if you succeed in entering them, in the midst of a brilliant assemblage of youth, beauty and fashion; of men worth knowing and women worth seeing; and being hemmed in on all sides by orbicular spreads of brocade and velvet… You know there are charming pictures on the walls, lovely landscapes…But what's the use? You cannot see them. Nobody sees them. But everybody sees everybody, and there's the delight of it. The receptions also gave visitors the chance to see artists in their natural habitat. Studios offered plenty to gawk at: skulls, taxidermy, medieval helmets, antlers, and souvenirs from the West or the Far East. Church's atelier was filled with tropical plants brought back from South America, the sort of "sunny hints of the equator" you could see in his paintings. Half-finished landscapes or still lifes were propped on easels, modeled on the exotic bric-a-brac surrounding them.

[Albert H. Baldwin's studio in the Sherwood Studio Building. / Museum of the City of New York.]

Such tableaux of creative genius enthralled the ladies, the papers claimed, and made their husbands reach for their checkbooks. Before commercial galleries were common, artists sold work from their studios. The décor was partly intended to enhance the appreciation of the artist and his work. Many artists also felt they needed an atmosphere rich with beauty and history for inspiration.

In 1878, the impressionist painter William Merritt Chase moved in and took over the exhibition space for his own studio. Its bizarre opulence was legendary. After six years abroad, Chase brought home the European trend for museum-like studios. The two-story room was stuffed with oddities: plaster masks, tents, Japanese umbrellas, a stained-glass window, an incense lamp, crucifixions, Indian drums, a Turkish coffee pot, velvet drapes, pistols, and a bronze bust of Voltaire. Chase's Russian deer hound lounged on the Venetian divan and a costumed valet answered the door. It all stoked his outsized reputation.

Chase hosted parties regularly, such that another resident complained of being "kept awake nearly all night by cats in the hall." In 1890, John Singer Sargent and Isabella Stewart Gardner arranged for the Spanish dancer Carmencita, a sensation recently in from Paris, to perform in Chase's studio. He staged it as a sort of tableau vivant of Sargent's El Jaleo. The show started after midnight and was crowded with fashionable women, who tore off their jewelry to throw at the dancer.

[Penrhyn Stanlaw's studio on 67th Street. Wurts Bros. (New York, NY). / Museum of the City of New York.]

Chase moved out in 1895, which historians of the Studio Building view as the end of its heyday, though it survived until 1955. In the late-19th century, the building was mostly known for its cheap rents and old-fashioned artists, outshone by new properties uptown. By then the art world had shifted from Greenwich Village to the streets just below Central Park, thanks to the likes of the Sherwood Studio Building.

New studios attracted artists who wanted a lifestyle as modern as their paintings. John H. Sherwood, a banker and real estate speculator, devised a building "a little less Bohemian in its arrangements" than those downtown, where artists willing to pay $500 a year "could live comfortably, even elegantly." He developed four city lots on the southeast corner of 57th Street and Sixth Avenue, an area that still had some vacant plots and shanties.

Twice the size of the 10th Street building, the Sherwood Studios opened in 1880, practically a skyscraper at seven stories high. It was a pioneer on 57th Street, which soon emerged as an elite residential street and art corridor, with Carnegie Hall and its studios, the American Fine Arts Society, and the Rembrandt and Rodin Studios.

The Sherwood Studios was the first apartment house designed specifically for artists, setting a precedent for a building type that would become common at the turn of the century. The 45 suites were designed for families, each with a parlor and bedrooms as well as a studio. Austere brick on the outside, the building had large windows and modern conveniences like an elevator, electric doorbells, speaking tubes, and redwood trim. Even its demographics were unusual: a third of the artists were women.

Apartments had no kitchens. Residents ate in the restaurant downstairs, a defining feature of life in the building. Groups of bachelors or married couples clustered in the private dining rooms every night, and when someone sold a painting, it was understood that he would buy wine for the table. Many had been students together in Paris, so the building felt like a "reunion of old friends," according to one tenant. Painter J. Carroll Beckwith, Sherwood's great-nephew, wrote that residents hardly needed to socialize outside the building: "When one is constantly seeing the crowds of people one sees here, there is little occasion for a club. We sit at table each night a party."

Like in a college dorm, there were often impromptu late-night gatherings in the studios: dances, card games, concerts, or boozy salons. According to John Davis's detailed study of the building, Beckwith and his wife became known for their soirées, such as an "Infants' Party" in which guests came dressed as children. For his wife's birthday one year, Beckwith surprised her with a private performance by Carmencita—beating out Chase—who danced with abandon past 3 a.m., accompanied by guitars.

Visitors who scored an invitation to a studio event relished the glimpse of this rarified Bohemia. You could imagine Toulouse-Lautrec making an entrance. One outsider in awe of Carmencita's dancing also noted that:

It was a study to see the people. My taste for such things is rather uncultivated, but most of them had been to Spain and got a notion. Enough to cry out Spanish exclamations of approval. Besides, they thought it was very much the thing to admire, and they were all artists, to whom grace of line, etc., appeals, and they really were wild. As at Tenth Street, Sherwood artists initially obliged the public curiosity by opening their studios for receptions. Despite attempts to limit the numbers, upwards of 2,000 people would pour through the apartments. Hosting was a chore, but artists were exhilarated to see the best people in the city admire their work and "make their force felt as a social body." After drunken celebrations, though, they realized they didn't sell much art. Frustrated, artists eventually stopped the group receptions and held their own individually. Sherwood artists, Davis points out, always had trouble translating the widespread interest in their living spaces into commercial success.

Given this fascination with studio life, it's unsurprising that non-artists eventually adopted the apartments for themselves. Double-height studios and large north-facing windows, visitors noticed, made excellent places to entertain. While the Sherwood Studios was home to artists until its demolition in the 1960s, later developments, like the Hotel des Artistes, were more mixed.

In the early-20th century, studio buildings became increasingly high-end and ornate. The Gainsborough Studios' big windows looked north onto Central Park. The Studio Building on West 77th Street featured eye-catching terracotta moldings. On West 67th Street, Gothic details unified a colony of five studio buildings constructed between 1901 and 1917.

It's hard to believe that artists could have ever afforded to live in such tony surroundings. What made it possible was that the apartments were cooperatives, an idea the studio buildings popularized. Although some developments had experimented with the concept in the 1880s, it wasn't a success until landscape painter Henry W. Ranger built the Sixty-Seventh Street Studios (right, via MCNY) at 27 West 67th Street in 1901.

Ranger was spending $2,000 a year on an apartment and another $700 on a studio, neither of which was adequate for displaying his paintings. He came up with a plan for a space where artists could live, work, and display their art. Unable to interest a speculative builder, Ranger rallied nine other artists to invest in the project and live in the building when it was completed. They would own their apartments and rent out the rest, which produced a 23 percent return on their investment.

They bought a site on the north side of West 67th Street, which was then a service street with stables catering to homes and hotels north of it. Though a bit rustic, it was convenient to galleries and the park, and it had good north light, with low row houses behind it. Ranger's design included 14 north-facing studios with 18-foot ceilings, each with duplex living areas, and 20 smaller units to be rented out.

The building's success led Ranger to develop another site on the block in 1903, the Atelier Building. Three other co-op studio apartment houses followed. A combination of the same architects—Simonson, Pollard & Steinam—went on to design many of the buildings on the street, giving it an unusually cohesive appearance. They drew a range of tenants. In 1912, the Brickbuilder wrote that the 67th Street apartments "rented readily to artists, musicians, literary people, and those who enjoyed having receptions requiring large rooms."

The Hotel des Artistes is the largest and most opulent building on the block, with a neo-Gothic façade and medieval-style woodwork. The painter Penrhyn Stanlaws organized a syndicate of artists to build it, at 1 West 67th Street, and it opened in 1917. Amenities went far beyond the needs of the building's portraitists and illustrators, with a ballroom, squash court, swimming pool, and roof garden. It also had its own chef, since apartments lacked kitchens. Rooms were for rent starting at $850 a year, and non-artists made up a significant portion of residents from the start. The 1920 census counted 14 artists, 11 actors or film executives, and 22 engineers or businessmen.

"Does art pay? Well, just rather," quipped the Herald when the $1.2 million building opened. "Just a glance at it will convince any skeptic that New York artists make more than stock brokers."

Howard Chandler Christy's space in the Hotel des Artistes. Image courtesy Vibeke Lichten.]

Artists who lived there were indeed successful, though few are well known today. Howard Chandler Christy painted the murals in the restaurant (now the Leopard). Sasha Votichenko, a musician and composer, gave regular concerts in the building. Wladyslaw Brenda painstakingly crafted exotic masks that were worn in performances around the world. It was later home to Norman Rockwell and Ellsworth Kelly.

From the start, the Hotel des Artistes was famous for its parties. With creative residents and an enormous ballroom, this seems inevitable. Theatrical entertainment often featured pageants or tableaux vivant with artist models. One spectacle had them posing in a glass tank, fed by water from the swimming pool. In another, artists sketched actresses in front of the crowd. A circus ball showcased a freak sideshow and turned the pool into a miniature Palm Beach. A new year's party ended with a breakfast cabaret. All of this occurred in the winter of 1919 alone.

A favorite regular event was the Chu Chin Chow Ball, an Orientalist fantasy that required guests to wear Eastern dress. The Times was on the scene:

There was a riot of Oriental color at the Chu Chin Chow Ball held last night at the Hotel des Artistes…Like all artistic costume functions, the ball began very late, and the clock struck midnight even before the general dancing commenced…a Russian gypsy pageant, with its weird music, songs, and dances, was staged at 1 o'clock around a realistic campfire in the ballroom. In the wee hours, a group of artists on the building's entertainment committee—including Stanlaws and Christy—presented a golden apple to the most beautiful woman present.

Over the years, the parties quieted down, celebrities moved in, and the ballroom got turned into an exclusive health club. The Hotel des Artistes had made studio life glamorous. The few studio buildings that followed it were geared toward the general public as much as artists. Architects took cues from their design, bringing studio-sized windows to conventional apartment houses. As they did with lofts decades later, artists had put a new spin on city living.

Buildings are no longer constructed specifically for artists. The most recent live-work development is Westbeth, located in the former Bell Laboratories complex in the far West Village. Opened in 1970, it's an early example of the adaptive reuse of industrial buildings for the arts, now the norm for studios. And what if artists wanted to return to their roots in the studio buildings? A duplex at the Hotel des Artistes recently asked a cool $6 million.
· Mapping 15 Manhattan Buildings Originally Built for Artists [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]