Strange Bedfellows Happened on West 9th Street: Ida Tarbell, Hans Hofmann, and Margot Gayle
When conducting research for our Greenwich Village Historic District 1969-2019 Maps and Tours, we discovered that investigative journalist Ida Tarbell, artist Hans Hofmann, and one of our favorite preservationists, Margot Gayle, all lived in the same building at 38-44 West 9th Street, although none at the same time. So today we take a deeper dive into the life of this building and these three very different individuals who lived there, as part of both our Strange Bedfellows, and our They Lived on West 9th Street series. This is also one in a series of posts marking the 50th anniversary of the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District. Check out our year-long activities and celebrations at gvshp.org/GVHD50.
No. 38-44 West 9th Street, “The Portsmouth” was built in 1882 around the same time as its neighbor to the west, “The Hampshire.” Both were designed by Ralph Townsend, and the Portsmouth exhibits the Queen Anne style so popular in America in the early 1880s. It is one of New York City’s earliest apartment houses designed for middle-class residents (as opposed to a “tenant house,” or tenement, which was designed for poor or working-class residents who could not afford a home, which those in the middle class and above generally chose to live in). Converted to a cooperative in 1973, it now has 53 apartments of varying sizes. The A.I.A. Guide to New York City Architecture, Fifth Edition, described the buildings as “Lusty Victorian flats embellished with rich terra-cotta spandrels and, in the case of The Hampshire, diminished by festoons of fire escapes.” Ida Tarbell and Hans Hofman are mentioned as residents in the 1969 designation report for the Greenwich Village Historic District (perhaps ironically, Margot Gayle, whose efforts played a key role in making the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District a possibility, was not).
Ida Tarbell was the first one of this group to call The Portsmouth Home, from 1901-1908. Tarbell was a trailblazing writer and investigative journalist best known for exposing the corrupt business practices of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and his company, Standard Oil. While Tarbell resided on West 9th Street she wrote a searing collection of articles for McClure’s magazine that were published in 1904 as “The History of The Standard Oil Company.” This exposé is credited with hastening the breakup of Standard Oil. In 1911, the Supreme Court of the United States found the company to be violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, and Standard Oil was broken up its 34 smaller companies. Ironically, the total value of all of Rockefeller’s company’s shares increased after the breakup. Click here to read more about Ida Tarbell and other places she lived in the Village.
Hans Hofmann was born in Germany in 1880 and became one of the foremost figures in mid-20th-century American art. Known for his energetic, color-infused work, and renowned as a visionary teacher, Hofmann played a pivotal role in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Much of this was done while he lived and worked in Greenwich Village. In 1934 Hofmann re-opened his Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts on 137 East 57th Street. In October 1936 Hofmann relocated the school to 52 West 9th Street in Greenwich Village, which is when he moved to 38-44 West 9th Street. He lived in this building from 1936 to 1938.
Click here to read more about Hans Hofman and other places where he lived and worked in the Village.
Born in 1908, Margot Gayle became involved in historic preservation while working at the New York City Planning Department. By the end of the 1950s, Gayle organized the Village Neighborhood Committee, and with its support, led a successful grassroots campaign to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse Building. We do not know the exact dates she lived at 38-44 West 9th; it is reported that efforts to save the courthouse began in Gayle’s kitchen there in 1959. We know she was living there in 1966 when she helped co-found the Victorian Society in America.
Gayle was also a Democratic district leader, author, candidate for City Council, leader of the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture and the Committee of Neighbors to Get the Clock on the Jefferson Market Courthouse Started, and advocate for the creation of SoHo Cast Iron Historic District and the New York City Landmarks Law. And that list of titles and accomplishments doesn’t even begin to do her justice.
Click here to listen to the oral history Village preservation conducted with Margot Gayle in 1996 or click here to read the transcript of the interview.
Click here to read more Strange Bedfellows, and click here to read more in our series They Lived on West 9th Street. Explore the homes of nearly a thousand other prominent Greenwich Village residents and sites of historic or architectural interest on our Greenwich Village Historic District 1969-2019 Map and Tours at www.gvshp.org/GVHD50tour.