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The Innovative Building That Formed America’s Most Famous Artist Enclave

History is peppered with rich patrons of the arts. But there is one building that has managed to become the patron saint of an entire arts district. The building is no longer standing, but for 99 years, it was called the Tenth Street Studio Building, and the district is the neighborhood of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. 

The building was commissioned by James Boorman Johnston, the son of a successful Scotsman (who married into an even more successful American family). He commissioned one of the most notable architects of the era, Richard Morris Hunt, who distinguished himself as the first American to study at what was considered the best architecture school in the world, the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Hunt’s education in classically beautiful buildings is likely what made Johnston pick him for his innovative, if not a bit romantic, project.

Johnston thought that since artists often struggled to find places in the city with the space and light adequate for painting and showing their art, why not just make a building specifically for them? So Hunt did exactly that. The Studio Building was designed with studios of all sizes surrounding an internal courtyard that would double as a collective showroom. A newspaper announcement from when the building was built in 1858 does a better job of describing it than I ever could (I recommend reading it with an old-timey reporter voice):

“Here we have a building devoted entirely to the service of artists. This structure is an experiment, intended to provide studios for artists, accompanied with an exhibition room, wherein the works of the occupants of the building can be visible at all suitable hours. There are about twenty-three studios (large and small) in the building, which occupies a space of ground one hundred feet square, besides a number of small rooms, etc., that can be used as required. The studios range in size from about fifteen feet by twenty feet to twenty feet by thirty feet. The exhibition room is a prominent feature of the building, being fine in proportion, and beautifully lighted. The building is erected by James B. Johnston, Esq., and is a laudable enterprise; we would point to it as one of the evidences of an increasing estimation of Art in our midst.”

The article goes on to call the development a “laudable enterprise” and cites it as evidence of “an increasing estimation of Art in our midst.” It turns out, that is exactly what it was on both counts. The studio space quickly attracted prominent artists. The list of talented painters who lived there is long, but among the most notable were Frederic E. Church and Winslow Homer. The studios were on a waitlist for decades, and eventually, one of the adjacent buildings was bought and annexed to be part of this expressionistic experiment. 

The Tenth Street Studio Building, constructed in New York City in 1857, was the first modern facility designed solely to serve the needs of artists. It became the center of the New York art world for the remainder of the 19th century. Image public domain: Berenice Abbott

Plenty of cities have been artistic hotspots, but what made the Greenwich Village art scene so unique was that the art wasn’t locked away in museums and attics of aristocrats. Greenwich Village was a place not just to create art but to consume it. There were reports of crowds forming to see Windslow’s “tour de force” painting Heart of the Andes that now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum. The gallery also served as the social heart of the neighborhoods, and the resident artists were known to throw decadent parties to entertain would-be buyers and, of course, themselves.

Even long after many of the famous artists had moved out the building remained inhabited by illustrators, photographers, and restorers that, according to one historian, “enjoyed living in the reflected glow of the building’s past.” Despite the building’s obvious functionality for artists, it ultimately was not able to keep up with the building codes associated with modern living standards. But even after it was demolished in 1957, its legacy continued. The area was home to many of the famous musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and still has a vibrant gallery scene to this day. 

The Studio Building stands out because it was the first to be designed with the particular needs of one use in mind. It happened to be artists, but that same principle could easily be expanded to other groups. Most times buildings are looked at as a commodity, something that should appeal universally to the widest audience. But that is rarely how great products are designed. Things that appeal to everyone are seldom exceptional to anyone. The property industry can take a lesson from the success of the Tenth Avenue Studio Building by embracing the value of bespoke design. Only by clearly defining the target market and making the best possible space for their needs, buildings will be able to find their highest calling. And what higher calling could there be than being a patron of the arts?

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