How One Building Turned Greenwich Village Into an Artists’ Mecca
Ever wonder what started Greenwich Village’s role as a mecca for artists? A good deal of the credit can go to a single building which changed the way artists lived, worked, and interacted with one another and the world.
The Tenth Street Studios building, located at 51 West 10th Street, was built in 1858. The structure’s exclusive purpose was to house studios and living space for artists, according to several historians the very first such building ever built anywhere in the world. It was designed by Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), the great American architect who was also the first American to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and became the center of the New York art world for decades after it was built.
The innovative concept of a structure built solely to service the needs of artists came from the mind of real estate speculator James Boorman Johnston (1822-1887), and would serve as a prototype for the profession. Innovative development was in Johnston’s blood; his father developed the nearby row of houses on Washington Square North and co-founded New York University. Johnston envisioned a space where artists could not only live and paint but also exhibit and sell their works. Johnston had met Hunt while in Europe, and commissioned him to design the studio building right across from his own home at 56 West 10th Street.
Four city lots wide, the Tenth Street Studios replaced a piano manufactory and its design focused on function. At the front and rear facades were wide windows, with the front facade relatively restrained in its ornament, consisting largely of geometric patterns of red brick and brownstone stringcourses. Hunt’s plan was for three floors of studios around a central communal gallery that was thirty by forty feet and capped by a 15 x 26-foot glass ceiling, flooding the room with natural light. Gaslight fixtures were on the lower edge of the light well as well allowing for lighting at night. Care was taken by Hunt to encourage artistic relationships through interconnecting studios creating a collaborative, club-like atmosphere among the artists.
The Tenth Street Studios at 15 Tenth Street (changed to 51 West Tenth Street in 1866) opened in January of 1858 with nearly every room rented; soon there was a waiting list. The demand did not abate, and by 1873 an annex was built next door at 55 West 10th Street, which was quickly rented to capacity as well. On Saturday afternoons, the public was invited for receptions and to tour the studio spaces. This allowed not just for the exhibition of the artists’ works, but also gave the public a window into the creative process of the artists. Twice a year, formal exhibitions were held in the center gallery. The Tenth Street Studios attracted a who’s-who of the American art world; just some of the artists who took up tenancy here included Winslow Homer, William Bradford, John LaFarge, Alexander Calder, W. H. Beard, William Merritt Chase and Homer D. Martin. Virtually every member of the Hudson River School of artists took up residency there, with many of their most impressive works made within its walls.
From the building’s opening until 1870, Hunt maintained his own studio there, providing the only formal architectural training at that time in the United States outside of apprenticeships. Architects who had the benefit of this training include George B. Post, William R. Ware, Henry Van Brunt, Frank Furness, and Charles Gambrill. Within this collaborative environment, some of these budding architects worked with the artists of the Tenth Street Studio. All but Ware lived there.
In 1879 James Johnston conveyed the property to his brother, John Taylor Johnston, founding president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1893 John died and the building passed to his son, J. Herbert Johnston. In 1920 rumors spread of J. Herbert’s plans to sell the building, and the resident artists banned together and formed The Tenth Street Studios, Inc. and purchased the building. In 1942, the building’s basement became the meeting place for the Bombshell Artists Group, an alliance of 60 modernist painters and sculptors, a number of whom had studios in the building.
In the 1950s, the building was sold again, this time finally for demolition and replacement with an 11-story apartment building which went by the name the Peter Warren Apartments.
Want to learn about more homes of artists in Greenwich Village? Take our ‘Artists’ Homes’ tour on our Greenwich Village Historic District 1969-2019 map at www.gvshp.org/GVHD50tour.