James Renwick, Jr. was born on November 11, 1818, in New York City. He would become one of the most successful American architects of the 19th century, designing such high profile buildings as New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Smithsonian “Castle” in Washington D.C., and Grace Church, right here in our neighborhood on Broadway between East 11th and East 10th Streets.
Renwick was born into a socially prominent and wealthy New York City family. His mother was Margaret Brevoort, the daughter of Henry Brevoort Sr., whose family landholdings in the area south of Union Square went back to the early 1700’s. She was also the sister of Henry Brevoort, Jr. who built his mansion in 1834 on Fifth Avenue and West 9th Street, setting the tone for the affluent development of this part of Greenwich Village. Renwick’s father, James Renwick, Sr., the son of a wealthy Scottish merchant, graduated from Columbia College (later Columbia University) and was a professor of natural philosophy there. Although trained as an engineer, James, Sr. had a number of talents including an aptitude for architecture.
James Jr. also attended Columbia College and after graduating at age 17, worked as a structural engineer. Through his father’s connections, he was able to secure a position that led to his appointment as the construction Superintendent for the Croton Aqueduct System. He was awarded his first major architectural commission in 1843 at the ripe old age of 24, to design Grace Church for the wealthiest and most fashionable parish in New York at that time. This ecclesiastic edifice was finished in 1846 and stood alongside Richard Upjohn’s Trinity Church as an outstanding example of Gothic Revival architecture. Grace is clad in Sing Sing marble and at the time of its construction stood out almost as a beacon at the bend in Broadway. Due to cost overages, the spire was originally constructed in wood, but was replaced with marble in 1883.
Located across Broadway is another Renwick-designed building, the St. Denis Hotel. Built in 1853, it originally featured elaborate terracotta ornament, meant to compliment and reference Grace Church across the street. It was host to numerous historical figures over the course of its lifetime, including President Abraham Lincoln, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Roscoe Conkling, Chester A. Arthur, P.T. Barnum, and Sarah Bernhardt. Additionally, in 1877 Alexander Graham Bell had his first public demonstration in New York of the telephone here, and Marcel Duchamp worked here for the last twenty years of his life in absolute secrecy on his final masterpiece, Étant donnés. After Duchamp’s death on October 2, 1968, his close friends and the world were stunned to find this work hidden in his studio in Suite #403.
Two housing developments in our neighborhood are attributed the James Renwick, Jr. (although his hand in their design has not been confirmed). The first is what is sometimes called “Renwick Row,” ten houses at 20-38 West 10th Street built in 1856 (with the exception of No. 38, built in 1858). This row or “terrace” of houses was built in the Anglo-Italianate style and clad in brownstone, with a continuous rusticated base and second-floor balcony originally spanning the entire row.
The second such terrace attributed to Renwick is what is sometimes known as Renwick Triangle, located in the East Village at the intersection of East 10th Street and Stuyvesant Street. These houses were built on land that was owned by the Stuyvesant and Fish families. Also Angle-Italianate in style, the terrace fronts both Stuyvesant Street (Nos. 23-35) and East 10th Street (Nos 114-128), with a dramatic, acutely cornered building at the tip of the triangle.
James Renwick, Jr. died in 1895 at his home at 28 University Place (today the address is No. 60 University Place) and the obituary for him in The New York Times described him as ” one of the foremost architects in this country.”