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#SouthOfUnionSquare Master Architect: James Renwick, Jr.

The neighborhood #SouthOfUnionSquare can be characterized as a true crossroads — where art, politics, industry, commerce, the New York elite, and the working class collided to create an eclectic built environment and cultural ferment emblematic of New York City’s status as America’s “melting pot.” While some have cited this eclecticism as a reason why the neighborhood shouldn’t be landmarked, it is clear that the architectural variety and vibrancy in the area South of Union Square are part of what makes the neighborhood so unique and vital.

Amidst all this diversity, however, is a remarkable and unrivaled ensemble of architectural works designed by one of 19th century America’s greatest architects, whose family roots were deep in this neighborhood and spent much of his life here.

A sampling of James Renwick, Jr. buildings in the area south of Union Square.

James Renwick, Jr. (November 1, 1818 — June 23, 1895) was one of the 19th century’s most prolific and successful American architects. Renwick is best known for his mastery of the Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles, as evidenced in his masterworks Grace Church (1843-1858), St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue (1859-1878), and the Smithsonian Institute on Washington D.C.’s Mall (1846). James Renwick, Jr.’s New York roots are in the area south of Union Square. Descended from the Brevoort family who held a great deal of land in the neighborhood, it is no surprise that Renwick left his mark on the built environment of this neighborhood. Renwick’s architectural firm, Renwick, Aspinwall & Russell, was a family affair that included his wife’s distant cousin, James Aspinwall, and his great-nephew, William Russell, and leveraged its connections to the Brevoort name to land some of the most competitive projects in New York. There are at least six extant James Renwick, Jr. buildings South of Union Square. Some notable and eclectic examples include a French Flat apartment building, a Romanesque loft building with Art Nouveau detailing, and a grand hotel in the Renaissance Revival style.

39-41 East 10th Street, The Lancaster 

The Federal-style fanlight with terracotta detailing at the Lancaster.

This distinctive structure is notable as an early surviving example of the ‘French Flat’ or middle-class apartment building in New York City, for its unusual combination of architectural styles, and for its design by one of New York’s most prominent and esteemed architects of the time, who had a significant impact upon the immediate vicinity with other works, including the National Historic Landmark Grace Church. 39-41 East 10th Street was built in 1887, at a time when apartment buildings were just beginning to be introduced in New York as an acceptable form of living for middle or upper-class residents. It is one of the earliest extant ‘French Flats’ or middle-class apartment buildings in the area and in New York City. Built when this area was still a prestigious residential address but in flux and beginning to transform into a commercial center, the Lancaster was clearly an attempt to attract a more sophisticated resident of means, as many who preferred a neighborhood of private homes were increasingly shunning the area. The façade combines elements from two then-emerging styles in residential architecture, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival. At the centered entryway is a large Federal-style fanlight at the transom surrounded by a decorative terracotta arch. Above the entry is the name “The Lancaster” incised into the brick, and at either side of the entry and also incised into the brick are the numbers “39” to the left and “41” to the right. Splayed lintels are featured at the windows besides those at the top story. There the windows are capped by round arches with ornamented terracotta at the tympanum. The brick façade is capped by a simple denticulated cornice. On the interior there were, and apparently still are, two apartments per floor. The building’s architectural elements and its exterior ironwork remain remarkably intact to the original period of construction more than one hundred thirty years ago.

806-808 Broadway/104-106 Fourth Avenue, The Renwick 

The striking Art Nouveau-style door of 806-808 Broadway is still intact today.

This striking loft building, which runs the entire block from Broadway to Fourth Avenue behind Grace Church, was designed in 1887. Despite the fact that it was designed to be a utilitarian structure for offices, storage, and manufacturing, it features vivid Gothic detail to serve as an appropriate backdrop to Grace Church. Aside from signage, the building is almost completely intact to its original design, from the gothic arches and tracery to the more robust, industrial Romanesque detailing of the Fourth Avenue façade. Both sides of the building maintain beautifully intact cast-iron storefronts, while the Broadway side boasts florid Art Nouveau-style ironwork over the doorway and entry. The harmony between this structure, built as a store and manufacturing building, and one of the most delicate and important Gothic Revival structures in the United States, is nothing short of remarkable. In 1981 the building was converted to residences and renamed ‘The Renwick,’ in honor of its architect. 

797-799 Broadway, The St. Denis Hotel (no longer extant)

Engraving of the St. Denis Hotel circa 1853. NYPL.
The St. Denis Hotel circa 1900. NYPL.
797-799 Broadway, August 2021.

Completed in 1853, the St. Denis Hotel stood at the corner of East 11th Street and Broadway. The property, which was owned by the Renwick family, had been given to them by their relative, Henry Brevoort, a successful farmer and prominent landowner during the late eighteenth century. The hotel was named after its first proprietor, Denis Julian, and its style was derived from Elizabethan and Renaissance models. It was said to be “one of the handsomest buildings on Broadway, occupying seventy-six feet on that thoroughfare and one hundred and twenty on Eleventh Street” by Miller’s New York as it Is, Or Stranger’s Guide-book to the Cities of New York, Brooklyn and Adjacent Places. The St. Denis was one of the first buildings in New York to utilize terracotta as exterior architectural ornament. It was host to numerous historical figures over the course of its lifetime, including President Abraham Lincoln, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Roscoe Conkling, Chester A. Arthur, P.T. Barnum, and Sarah Bernhardt. Additionally, in 1877 Alexander Graham Bell had his first public demonstration in New York of the telephone here, and Marcel Duchamp worked here for the last twenty years of his life in absolute secrecy on his final masterpiece, Étant donnés. After Duchamp’s death on October 2, 1968, his close friends and the world were stunned to find this work hidden in his studio in Suite #403.

The Lancaster and The Renwick, as well as James Renwick, Jr’s more well-known works in the area, The Grace Church, Grace Church Rectory, and Grace Church Memorial House, are all within feet of one another. This cluster of Renwick works provides an unrivaled example of the skill of James Renwick as an architect, which is exceptionally valuable considering that very few of Renwick’s architectural plans, sketches, and notes survive today. The sadly demolished St. Denis Hotel at Broadway and 11th Street would have added even further to this rich tapestry of Renwick designs. While Renwick constructed other ensembles elsewhere, few if any span nearly half a century as these do, and serve such varied purposes – religious worship, residences, and commercial loft space – while maintaining such compatibility and dialogue between the pieces. Renwick also lived and died at a since-demolished house at what would now be 60 University Place (10th Street), just down the block from all these structures. 

James Renwick, Jr.’s contributions to this neighborhood can be explored via our #SouthOfUnionSquare Map and Tours (take the Renwick tour here). Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square. To help landmark these incredible historic structures and other buildings in this area, click here

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