The Art of the Artist’s Studio
This piece was originally posted in 2014
These beautiful late summer days have got us thinking about sun and sky. Which has us thinking about that most iconic of Village architectural features, the artist’s studio. So we thought we’d use the occasion of these warm August days to conduct a brief survey of some of our favorite artist’s studio windows in the Village and East Village.
First, for those who might not be familiar, artist’s studios are spaces generally inserted into the upper floor of what had been a single-family rowhouse after it had been divided up into an apartment building. The evolution was typically this: a house was built for a middle class or prosperous family sometime in the early 19th century; if it was a federal-style house, it had a sloped roof with two dormers, or if it was a Greek Revival house it had a flat roof with a low-ceilinged attic. In either case, this uppermost floor was the most restrictive in terms of space, and was typically where the servants lived.
Then sometime in the mid-to-late 19th century, as the Village and East Village were flooded with immigrants, these single family homes were “tenementized” or divided up into multi-unit, multi-family housing. Typically the least lucky (or poorest) family got the top floor, which was least desirable because of the cramped ceilings and long hike up the stairs.
Then in the early 20th century, artists and those who just liked to live around artists became interested in these neighborhoods, and property owners realized they could actually attract artists and artist-wannabe’s to even these least desirable top floor spaces by turning them into “artist’s studios.” This involved inserting a large industrial casement window into the front of the floor, and in doing so typically raising all or part of the roof on this previously cramped top floor. What was then created was an unadorned, unconventional space, now with taller-than-usual ceilings, lots of light and air, and an industrial aesthetic. True artists who needed wide open space and light to work loved it, and so did those who were just attracted to that lifestyle. And thus the “artist’s studio” and the much-sought-after “studio window” was born. Today these spaces typically go for a premium, given their cherished associations and the generous light, air, and views they provide.
So here are a few of our favorites:
226 West 13th Street (between 7th and Greenwich Avenues) has a classic artist’s studio window inserted into the sloped roof of this former federal style houses. The studio likely replaced federal style dormers. According to the designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District, the house was originally built in 1833 for Samuel Phillips, a lamplighter.
228 West 13th Street next door was more dramatically altered for its artist’s studio than its neighbor to the east. Not only was a casement window added on the fourth floor at the street facade, but a second industrial casement window was added on the sloped roof above, making for a space flooded with light.
62 West 9th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues) was, according to the designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District, built for William Beach Lawrence in 1839. The Greek Revival house had three studio windows added above its cornice.
Just down the block, 52 West 9th Street has a rather unusual studio window. According to the designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District, this house was built in 1848 for physician Austin Sherman. But the unusual studio renovation took place some time in the early 20th century. Here the studio is not only unusually high (seemingly a nearly double-height space), but is recessed enough to supply a balcony with a balustrade for the lucky resident.
According to the designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District, 2o and 22 West 10th Street, just around the corner, are part of an unusual “terrace” or row of Anglo-Italianate brownstone town houses built in 1856 (often attributed to the great architect James Renwick Jr., though the veracity of this claim is disputed).
Unlike the other houses in this unified row, however, Nos. 20 & 22 were altered in the early 20th century to add the very large studio windows you see here above a pair of small, truncated windows which took the place of the original two bays.
As you can see from this interior shot of the studio at #20, this creates a single, floodlit, high ceilinged space. Another highly unusual studio window appears at 114 Waverly Place (btw. 6th Avenue and Washington Square).
According to the designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District, 114 Waverly Place was built in 1826 as part of a row of nine houses for Thomas R. Merecin. However it underwent a complete and dramatic alteration in 1920 per the designs of William Sanger for Murray P. Bewley. In some ways the studio window is among the least unusual parts of the redesign of this building, which has been described as both “Art Nouveau” and “German Expressionist.” For more background, read this post in Daytonian in Manhattan.
Nos. 132 and 134 West 4th Street were both built in 1839 in the Greek Revival style and originally looked the same. Each has kept most of its original details (though #134 lost its original doorway and stoop), and both also had unusual artist’s studios inserted by notable architects.
No. 132 was remodeled in 1917 by Josephine Wright Chapman, one of the first successful female architects in America. In doing so, she created what may be the classic (and one of the earliest) rooftop Village artists studio additions.
Quite unusually, she kept the small Greek Revival side windows of the attic intact as she sensitively inserted a new bay window in the center and a setback industrial casement window behind the cornice.
This delicate interplay of new and old elements was in many ways decades ahead of its time. The work was considered so impressive that the house was recorded by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1935. Not long after the renovation in 1918, noted actor John Barrymore leased the house.
Next door, no. 134 West 4th Street also underwent a notable transformation directly following World War I. A young and then-unknown architect named Raymond Hood added a full fourth floor artists’ studio with casement windows in 1919. Hood would later become one of the most celebrated and successful American architects of the early 20th century, designing such venerable and influential landmarks as the Daily News Building, the Chicago Tribune Building, the McGraw Hill Building, and Rockefeller Center.
Soon thereafter and for much of the 1920′s the house was occupied by the very bohemian daughter of the 28th U.S. President, Margaret Woodrow Wilson. Ms. Wilson sang and made several recordings towards the end of her father’s presidency, but in 1938 traveled to and joined the ashram of Sri Aurobindo in Puducherry, India where she took the name ‘Nishti,” sanskrit for “sincerity.” From the ashram she edited the English translation of the classical work of the Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna. She stayed in Puducherry until she died in 1944.
No less notable a resident of No. 134 West 4th Street was the beloved and determined preservationist, and co-founder of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Verna Small, who owned the house until her death in 2008. No. 134 and 132 West 4th Street were both heard but not designated as individual landmarks by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1967, but were finally landmarked in 2013 as part of the South Village Historic District GVSHP proposed and successfully fought for.
Our next artist’s studio comes in a surprising location — one of the oldest houses in Manhattan!
No. 44 Stuyvesant Street is a Federal-style house built for Nicholas William Stuyvesant in 1795. The house bears many stylistic signs of its age, including splayed lintels, Flemish Bond brickwork, and doorway proportions that are typical of that era. In 1969, the house was designated a landmark as part of the St. Mark’s Historic District. The designation report states that, except for the Jumel Mansion and the Dyckman farmhouse, this is the only building from the 18th century “which has been solely used for residential use, successfully retaining for over 175 years its original plan (which is two rooms off the hall) and its many architectural elements.”
Our last artist’s studio is just around the corner from 44 Stuyvesant Street and also within the St. Mark’s Historic District, and is unusual in a very different way.
112 East 10th Street is part of the otherwise remarkably uniform “Renwick Triangle” which constitutes the heart of the St. Mark’s Historic District — the triangular block of houses built in 1861 on land originally owned by the Stuyvesant family. But unlike its neighbors, No.112 was radically redesigned in 1927, inserting casement studio windows into every one of the floors. At the top floor, not only was an extra-large, nearly floor-to-ceiling casement window inserted into the facade, but the roof was raised and an additional studio window inserted sloped towards the sky. This created an extraordinary space with a more than double-height ceiling and an almost unimaginable bounty of light and air.