Last Tuesday the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) handed preservationists what may seem like a small victory, but was nevertheless an important one. The LPC denied an application to remove a 1930 studio window from 246 West 11th Street, an 1842 Greek Revival row house in the Greenwich Village Historic District. The applicant proposed to replace it with a penthouse addition set in the middle of the side gable roof (click HERE for the application), and to make a raft of other changes to the facade of the building restoring features which had been removed, all of which we thought were fine.
But GVSHP, along with other preservation organizations, objected strongly to the proposed removal of the studio window. Why would preservation organizations object to the removal of an element added in the 20th century to a 19th century house, one might ask. The answer speaks to some of the nuances of historic preservation, and how preservation is not necessarily always about simply keeping buildings exactly as they were when built, or restoring them to a single point in their history.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, artists, writers, poets, journalists, musicians and political and social radicals, sometimes collectively referred to as bohemians, began to make the Village their home. They were drawn to the area for a variety of reasons including its rundown albeit picturesque quality, its anachronistic crooked streets and quaint architecture from an increasingly bygone era, its mix of working-class residents in distinct ethnic enclaves and hold-out middle and upper-middle-class residents, and its generally cheap rents.
Into this mix came artists, who often lived in “studio” apartments, which were not the small single room apartments we associate that term with today, but more typically large spaces with high ceilings and large, industrial type windows which allowed generous light and air so the occupant could work, paint, sculpt, etc., as well as sleep and eat. Some artists’ studio apartments were purpose-built, such as the Bryant Park Studios and the Central Park Studios.
In the Village, however, artists’ studios tended to be carved out of the top floors of ‘tenementized’ row houses — former single family houses that had become multiple apartments. The upper floors of these structures were typically the hardest to rent — they were only accessible by a long flight of stairs, often had low ceilings (they were typically originally the servant’s quarters and/or an attic), and had little or no architectural detail or charm. But artists were willing to live there, cheaply, especially if owners were willing to blow out the roof and windows, and add large ‘studio’ windows and elevated ceilings.
Thus these tacked-on artists studios became an important part of the Village’s transformation from bourgeois backwater to teeming immigrant district to artists’ mecca. Never one to miss an opportunity to cash in on a trend, property owners in the first few decades of the 20th century started to add these features on spec, hoping to attract artists, or even just those who wanted to appear to live like one. Today we see these windows scattered throughout the Village and East Village, a testament to this significant chapter in this area’s history (to read more about how the architecture of the Village was transformed by the arrival of bohemia, read the chapter in our nomination for the South Village Historic District by architectural historian Andrew Dolkart ‘Architecture in the Bohemian South Village.’)
246 West 11th Street was emblematic of these and other trends in the evolution of buildings in the Village. Built in 1842 by mason Peter D. Moore in the Greek Revival style, there have been a number of changes to this row house over the years and some significant elements still intact. The side gable roof is still in place. Back when No. 246 was built, this was a common roof type on the New York City row house, however many were replaced with upper floors or expanded attics, making way for the predominance of flat roofs we see today. The cornice was removed, the parapet was extended at the ends and coping was added. This may have been done in conjunction with the addition of the asymmetrically placed studio window on the front of the roof. There were other changes as well; an 1854 Perris Map (left) shows evidence of a tea room at the rear, and today there is a two story rear addition at the basement and parlor floor levels.
The proposal presented at the LPC last Tuesday called for the restoration of the front elevation including the cornice, cast stone profiled lintels to replace the current sheet metal lintels, and front doors which are modeled on the historic interior doors. As mentioned, the proposal also calls for the removal of the studio window and the cutting of the original side gable roof at the center to allow for a symmetrically placed penthouse addition.
GVSHP, as well as other preservation groups, decried the loss of the studio window all citing it as a testament to the Village’s early 20th century history. When the applicant was asked to respond to this objection, they replied that this particular studio window was not a good example of this otherwise significant architectural element, and it is currently in bad repair — a subjective evaluation, and a problem to which the much easier solution would be simply repair and/or replace the deteriorated window.
Fortunately the commissioners agreed, describing it as an important cultural feature of the area. All the commissioners who spoke did so in favor of keeping the studio window, and suggested that if it is indeed it is in bad repair, it could be replaced in keeping with the “spirit” of the original.
To learn about upcoming applications, please see the GVSHP Landmarks Application webpage.