Greenwich actively encouraged an avant-garde and alternative culture to establish itself and to succeed. But which came first? Did the modern attitudes of many of the Village’s residents support new political, artistic and cultural ideas, and entice other like-minded people to move in? Or did artists and writers move in for other reasons (eg low rents) and become radicalised by the neighbourhood? Perhaps they simply loved the Village’s speakeasies and cool cafes.
There are many elegant brownstone-lined streets in the Village but St Luke’s Place in the West Village is one of the loveliest. And the most expensive. Built in the early 1850s opposite Trinity Church's cemetery, the 15 row houses lived on the north side of the road. This block of brick and brownstone Greek and Renaissance Revival row houses displayed arched entries and pediment-topped windows that typified mid-century Renaissance Revival architecture.
St Luke's Place town houses
These once wealthy homes were divided into flats at the turn of the century and attracted another generation of writers and artists. The Pen and Brush Club sprung up in 1892, an organisation of professional women in the arts. Mark Twain purchased a mid century mansion in c1900 and hosted luxurious parties that people remembered for years. I will come back to St Luke’s Place later.
The Tenth St Studio Building was commissioned by James Boorman Johnston and designed by Richard Morris Hunt back in 1857. Its location at 51 West 10th St was ideal and its innovative design suited the needs of young artists perfectly. The glass-domed central gallery interconnected with the radiating rooms so that each artist could have his own well-lit studio space.
If a building can be said to entice new comers, The Tenth St Studio Building certainly did! The building quickly helped to make Greenwich Village central to the arts in New York, attracting a wide range of artists to paint, show and hopefully sell their art. Even I, who went to a university where Art was what came out of Italy, France and Britain, know that Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and William Merrit Chase (1849–1916) lived there, as did Frederic Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) of the Hudson River School. The Tile Club, famous in the 1880s as a place to discuss new ideas in art, was within easy walking distance.
Tenth Street Studio Building
Photo credit: Grand Central Atelier
Another important site was the Hotel Albert that opened during the 1880s and soon became a cultural heart of Greenwich Village; it functioned as a meeting site, eating place and residence for important artists and writers. The people I know best were Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anaïs Nin, Thomas Wolfe, Salvador Dalí and Philip Guston. And there were few more Bohemian places in the USA than Hotel Albert for dancer Isadora Duncan, writer William Faulkner and playwright Eugene O'Neill.
St Luke’s Place became even more famous (or infamous) when writer Max Eastman published a socialist literary magazine called The Masses from 1911 until 1918. Eastman invited the best writers, eg John Reed, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson and Louis Untermeyer, to contribute. The Masses was banned by the Justice Department in 1918 because of its opposition to American soldiers being involved in WWI; The Masses’ writers were tried with conspiracy to commit treason. Twice!
Supporting up and coming artists was an admirable but risky project for patrons. Just as WW1 exploded in 1914, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the Whitney Studio Club at West 8th St as a facility where young artists could exhibit their works. Even in the struggling inter-war era, Whitney worked on her greatest legacy, the Whitney Museum of American Art. Founded in 1931, the Whitney was her answer to the slightly older Museum of Modern Art and its collection of mostly European modernism. Gertrude Whitney was angry that American Art had been neglected and decided to put her efforts into a museum that would celebrate her own 25-year collection of modern art works.
Cherry Lane Theatre
The Cherry Lane Theatre was established after WW1 ended and is now New York's oldest continuously running Off-Broadway theatre. Poet-playwright Edna St Vincent Millay and her colleagues in the Provincetown Players converted the previously existing buildings into a theatre which opened in 1924 with a new play by WJ Turner. During the 1940s The Living Theatre, Theatre of the Absurd, and the Downtown Theatre Movement all settled there, a place where young playwrights and ambitious actors could display their talents.
A Village place to eat, drink and socialise in 1915
Photo credit: Heart of a Vagabond
It is no exaggeration to suggest that Greenwich Village was known as the artists' haven and Bohemian capital of the USA. The diaries, books, paintings and photos say it was!