Today we begin a new blog series, Strange Bedfellows, where we take a look at unlikely pairs or assortments of noteworthy people who lived or spent time in surprisingly close proximity to one another in our neighborhoods.
The St. Mark’s Historic District is known for all sorts of unique surprises — it contains Manhattan’s only true east-west street and its oldest house still in use as a residence, New York City’s oldest site of continuous worship, and the only triangle of houses attributed to famed 19th century architect James Renwick. But this tiny enclave, which was designated a New York City historic district on January 14, 1969, contains one other unique and unexpected surprise — that New Yorkers as different as Beaux Arts architect Stanford White and outsider chronicler Diane Arbus lived next door to each other in the heart of the district.
Stanford White (b. November 9, 1853) grew up at 118 East 10th Street. One of the defining architects of the Gilded Age, White was born into high society (and this row of houses, known as “Renwick Triangle,” was considered one of New York’s finest row of houses when built in the mid-19th century) and went on to, along with his partners Charles McKim and William Mead, design some of New York’s and the country’s finest structures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (in our area this includes Washington Square Arch, Judson Memorial Church, the Cable Building at Broadway and Houston Street, and the Bowery Savings Bank Building at Bowery and Grand Streets, as well as of course the original Penn Station). One could easily posit that the elegant architecture of 118 East 10th Street, and its refined, James Renwick-designed surroundings, might have influenced White’s classical aesthetic.
By the time Diane Arbus moved in next door at 120 East 10th Street a century later in 1968, the St. Mark’s Historic District and this row of houses had a decidedly different character, more befitting Arbus’ interests and aesthetic. Many of these elegant homes had become boarding houses, and the surrounding East Village neighborhood had taken on a character which could be described as gritty at best. When Arbus moved here from the backhouse at 131 1/2 Charles Street in the West Village, she had already gained considerable notoriety for her photographs of those typically found on the fringes of society — transgendered people, circus performers, interracial couples, dwarves and giants, and people with developmental disabilities. Arbus lived here until 1970, when she was one of the original residents to move into the newly-opened Westbeth Artists Housing. She took her own life while living there in 1971.
Of course it’s not uncommon for artists and innovators of all types to be found in our neighborhoods, though rarely did they live in such close proximity while leading such different lives. But Stanford White and Diane Arbus’ trajectories might have had more in common than a mere coincidence of geography and a shared party wall. While people, rather than architecture, were generally the focus’ of Arbus’ camera eye, she shot many of her most iconic images in Washington Square Park, in the shadow of White’s Washington Square Arch. And while White may have been the embodiment in many ways of Gilded Age glamor, in many ways he might have been more at home in a Diane Arbus photo than a society ball. The architect was a notorious hedonist known for the red velvet swing in his Madison Square apartment, his apparent bisexuality (according to recent biographers), and his notorious demise on June 25, 1906 at the hands of the mentally unstable husband of Evelyn Nesbitt in a jealous rage over the years-long affair between White and Nesbitt.