When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney set up her sculpture studio in Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Alley, one 1907 newspaper headline blared: “Daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt Will Live in Dingy New York Alley.” The wealthy lineage telegraphed by her name was an obstacle to being taken seriously as an artist, but that status also allowed her to be a major patron for working artists in the US at a time when most of the country’s elite was interested in old European masters. She expanded her initial studio into a whole art complex, complete with public exhibition space, eventually opening the first home of the Whitney Museum of American Art here in 1931.
The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture, which now occupies the space, is hosting the first regular public tours of her private studio following a restoration project supported by a $30,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The grant followed the National Trust’s naming the studio a National Treasure in 2014 (it had been designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992). “All treasures are places of national significance, where there’s some kind of need,” Alicia Leuba, the National Trust’s senior field director, said last Wednesday at the first of these public tours.
“This space is still actively used in the way Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney imagined it,” Leuba added, noting that as a school facility, it hosts art classes, salon shows, and critiques. The New York Studio School acquired Whitney’s complex in 1967, when it was it was very likely going to be demolished. Following Whitney’s death in 1942, her namesake museum moved to 22 West 54th Street in 1954, and subsequent use obliterated many of the original details.
However, the sculpture studio is still a striking space, although rather different than when Whitney worked on her figurative sculptures that emphasized human pathos, such as the Titanic Memorial in Washington, DC, the statue of Peter Stuyvesant in the East Village, and the Untermyer Memorial in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The space was a hayloft built in 1877, when MacDougal Alley was populated with horses instead of artists, and the hay door remains across from a huge skylight Whitney added. The light is warm and diffuses to every corner of the newly stabilized maple floor. “It makes the room shine like anything,” said New York Studio School Facilities Manager Jason Grodsky, who worked on the floor restoration, as well as removing flaking paint from the walls and securing any older lead paint.
The studio’s most arresting feature, however, is a 20-foot-tall fireplace consumed by plaster flames in which demons, dragons, snakes, and other strange creatures writhe, which connects up to a low-relief ceiling. The details, added after Whitney was no longer using it as a studio, are incredible, with humans battling an octopus, deer and dogs soaring through clouds and stars, planets radiating from a smiling sun, and numerous other scenes responding to fire as a rejuvenating and destructive force. Both the fireplace and the ceiling are by Robert Winthrop Chanler, who worked between 1918 and 1923 on the room. He also created seven stained glass windows for the space, which are no longer there, but represented on one side by drawings by student Sophy Lee.
The fireplace was originally painted in vivid polychrome, with red and gold on the licking flames. The School’s Tour Manager Alicia Cooper said that, in a joint project with the World Monuments Fund, university students researched the original color scheme, and excavated one portion of the fireplace that revealed a dragon now in oxidized green from the original bronzing powder. “In the future we would definitely like to have it all restored,” Cooper said.
The ceiling by Chanler is the most unexpected of the artistic history covered in the tour, which includes the former studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French (now gallery space), and the original 1930s Whitney Museum galleries, with their Art Deco-style aluminum door borders. There’s also a 1913 “secret staircase” that connected Whitney’s private studio to the office of Juliana Resier Force, who was the museum’s first director. The public tours are intended partly as an advocacy tool, to bring people in to see this early center of 20th-century American art.
Details on how to join a public tour at the New York Studio School (8 West 8th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) are available online.