March is Women’s History Month; the month-long celebration highlights the accomplishments of women in various fields throughout our history. With so much to choose from in New York City alone, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has put together a slideshow of designated landmarks with 19th and 20th century connections to women in the field of art.
Of the 20 slides, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more than a quarter of them have some link to Greenwich Village, a neighborhood known worldwide as a mecca for artists in the 20th century. We here at Off the Grid thought we’d highlight these Village landmarks. Can our savvy readers connect each building to their respective lady in the arts before we reveal her name below each photo?
The slideshow features the former Andrew and Louise Carnegie House at 2 East 91st Street that now houses the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. In that same slide there is also a mention of the Cooper Union, a designated landmark at East 7th Street and Cooper Square. What’s the connection? Besides the Cooper name, it would be sisters Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt who, in 1897, founded the museum on the fourth floor of the Cooper Union, the design school founded by their grandfather, Peter Cooper. The photo above was taken just two years after the Hewitt ladies began their museum venture.
Opened as the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, “the museum was to be open to everyone, with ‘no tedious restrictions and formalities,’ which were often imposed by the exclusive art galleries of the era. Their museum was one of the first to embody the increasingly democratic attitudes that grew to dominate the 20th century.” According to the Smithsonian Libraries website where this quote is taken, many female students used the collection. The museum eventually moved to its present location in the former Andrew Carnegie Mansion on Museum Mile in 1970, and serves as the only museum of its kind in the United States that is dedicated to both historical and contemporary design.
75 1/2 Bedford Street
This quirky home in the Greenwich Village Historic District is beloved both for its amusingly narrow width of 10 feet (the narrowest in the Village?) and its connection to Edna St. Vincent Millay, the early 20th century poet and playwright who lived here from 1923-24. It was at this time that Millay and her fellow Provincetown Players founded the still-operating Cherry Lane Theatre on nearby Commerce Street. Millay, as with so many of her contemporaries, could be seen in local establishments such as Chumley’s a few blocks north at 86 Bedford Street.
According to the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society website,
In the immediate post-World War I era, Millay emerged as a major figure in the cultural life of Greenwich Village, when the Village served as an incubator of every important American literary, artistic, and political movement of the period. As part of this milieu, Millay’s work and life came to represent the modern, liberated woman of the Jazz age, free of the restrictions of the past, as represented in her famous lines of poetry, “My candle burns at both ends…”
Though her time at 75 1/2 Bedford was short, she became the third woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, the year she moved to the Village.
8 West 8th Street
The Greenwich Village Historic District is also home to the New York Studio School at 8 West 8th Street. The complex began as the personal art studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney who purchased the stable at 19 MacDougal Alley in 1907. Over time she bought the seven neighboring townhouses and stables, becoming the sole owner in 1930. During this time, she opened the Whitney Studio galleries and Whitney Studio Club in 1918.
As her name suggests, she was born into one of New York’s most elite families. A portion of her wealth, as well as her husband’s, was used to create the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was housed here from 1930 to 1954 before its move uptown.
35 West 9th Street
Another Greenwich Village Historic District mention goes to the neo-Classical apartment building at 35 West 9th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The LPC slideshow refers to no. 25 as the home of poet Marianne Moore, but this is a typo as she actually lived on the seventh floor of no. 35 from 1965 until her death in 1972. Moore moved to the city in 1918 and soon began working at the New York Public Library. In the early 1920s her poetry was featured in Dial, a prestigious literary magazine of which she served as editor from 1925 to 1929.
By the time she had moved to Greenwich Village in 1965, Moore was one of the most celebrated poets in American history. Based on this 1966 New York Times article, she reluctantly left Brooklyn for the Village because of a series of robberies and a deteriorating neighborhood. She quickly came to embrace her new home, however, quoted as saying, “Well, now I am here, and I love it.” The apartment was described as a “large living room with a fireplace, guest room, a small bedroom for herself, and a newly equipped kitchen, all on the seventh floor of 35 West 9th Street. It is considered one of the ‘best’ blocks in the Village, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. There is a man to watch the door and run the elevator. Miss Moore now feels quite safe.”
50 Commerce Street
Located literally around the bend from the Cherry Lane Theatre (its canopy is just visible at the left of this photo from the Greenwich Village Historic District designation report) is the apartment house at 50 Commerce Street. Lovers of historic New York photographs might recognize the name of one of the building’s most famous residents: the acclaimed 20th century photographer Berenice Abbott.
It goes without saying that we here at Off the Grid are thrilled that Abbott called the Village her home and studio for 30 years, from 1935 to 1965 to be exact. It was here where she lived when her photos of Depression-era New York were compiled into the fascinating series Changing New York (published 1939), a source that continues to give modern audiences a window into the pre-World War II city. Abbot’s extensive work can also be found in the Collections Portal of the Museum of the City of New York.
131 1/2 Charles Street, 120 East 10th Street and Westbeth
Finally, the last female figure called out in the LPC slideshow lived at several locations in the Village. Lifelong New Yorker Diane Arbus – well-known for her photographs of off-beat subjects – moved to the carriage house at 131 1/2 Charles Street in 1959 and remained there until 1968. Located in the Far West Village, the building became part of the first extension to the Greenwich Village Historic District in 2006. Because it is the back building on the lot belonging to the Federal house at 131 Charles, you can’t see her one-time residence from the street. However, the red marker in the top-left corner photo of 130 Charles points you to the door that leads to 131 1/2.
Further east, Arbus moved to 120 East 10th Street between Second and Third Avenues in 1968, one year before the designation of the St. Mark’s Historic District. The Far West Village was calling her home, however, and she moved to Westbeth Artists Housing in 1970 where she died a year later. The building became an individual landmark in 2008.
132 West 4th Street
Okay, this last one isn’t mentioned in the LPC slideshow, but we just couldn’t resist mentioning it. Though this Greek Revival row house at 132 West 4th Street (left) in the South Village isn’t a designated landmark, we just had to include it for its connection to Josephine Wright Chapman, one of the first successful women architects in the United States. In 1917, she was commissioned to rehabilitate the townhouse; she added casement windows to the parlor floor and a three-sided, angled studio window at the attic level.
We were excited to hear that the LPC has made a commitment to consider the blocks north of Houston Street in a potential South Village Historic District. Part of a larger district that GVSHP proposed several years ago, 132 West 4th Street and its Chapman association would make a wonderful contribution to next year’s Women’s History Month slideshow, don’t you think?