“South of Union Square, the Birthplace of American Modernism” is a series that explores how the area south of Union Square shaped some of the most influential American artists of the 20th century.
Throughout the 20th century, the area south of Union Square attracted painters, writers, publishers, and radical social organizations, many of whom were challenging accepted American social and cultural ideals. This area is true crossroads — where art, politics, industry, commerce, the New York elite, and the working class collided to create an eclectic culture and built environment emblematic of New York City’s status as America’s “melting pot.” It is an ideal environment for inspiring creative expression, so much so that the area has its own art movement — the social realist Fourteenth Street School — named after it. From the late 19th to the mid 20th century a series of artist enclaves and galleries developed in the area south of Union Square.
One particularly notable collection of artist studios was located at 30 East 14th Street, a five-story structure built in 1880 as a retail store and lofts for W. Jennings Demorest. Demorest was the developer, businessman, and politician largely responsible for the late-19th century transformation of 14th Street from a high-end residential corridor to a center of commerce. During the late 19th and early 20th century, 30 East 14th Street housed the Vienna Millinery Institute, where one could learn “scientific and artistic dressmaking” and “the entire art of French millinery.” But the use of this building as artist studios has remained relatively consistent throughout its life. Below are just two of the influential artists who took up residence at 30 East 14th Street, challenging the boundaries and conventions of artmaking during their time:
Solon H. Borglum – 1900’s
Solon Hannibal Borglum (December 22, 1868 – January 31, 1922) was an American sculptor born in Utah and raised on the Nebraska prairie. He is best known for his idealized bronze sculptures of frontier life that were crucial in crafting the mythology of the American West. While he dreamed of being a cowboy rancher as a boy, his older brother Gutzon, who sculpted Mount Rushmore, convinced him to pursue an art career. Around 1900, after he completed his art education in Ohio and Paris, Borglum set up a sculpture studio at 30 East 14th Street. He had his first solo show in 1903, and was highly sought after to create bronze sculptural figures and architectural details.
Doris Lee 1930s
Doris Lee (February 1, 1905 – June 16, 1983) was one of the foremost figurative painters, muralists, and printmakers in the United States during the Great Depression. She was also a leading figure in the Woodstock Artist’s Colony. She garnered attention in 1935 when her painting ‘Thanksgiving‘ won the prestigious Logan Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago. Soon after, she received a commission to paint two murals for the General Post Office in Washington, D.C. (now the Ariel Rios Federal Building.) During the late 1940s and 1950s, she traveled to North Africa, Cuba, and Mexico to fulfill article and illustration commissions for LIFE magazine. Lee did not overanalyze the imagery of American idealism as her social realist peers did; she instead used it as a vehicle to explore the pleasure of paint and artistic media, like an abstract expressionist. Lee’s body of work reveals a remarkable ability to merge the reduction of abstraction with the appeal of the everyday, and offers a coherent visual identity that successfully bridged various approaches to image-making in the mid 20th century.
The list of artists who worked at 30 East 14th Street is long and impressive. An extensive but nowhere near complete list includes W. Hamilton Gibson, George E. Bissell, Samuel Halpert, Charles Keller, Minna Citron, Kenneth Hays Miller, Arnold Blanch, Harry Sternberg, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Arthur B. Davies, Howard Daum, Robert deNiro, Sr., Virginia Admiral, Edwin Dickenson, Carl Ashby, Edward Lanning, Agnes Hart, George Wiggens, Sam Hartman, Raymond Katz, Joseph Presser, N. Cikowsky, Bayard Osborn, Helen Hyde, Howard Baar, M. Ponce de Leon, David Cohen, May Janko, Ben Myers, and Lora Alkan.
In spite of its rich history, this building and most of those around it lack landmark protections, and thus is vulnerable to demolition at any time. You can discover more locations in this neighborhood where painters and sculptors transformed the art world on our #SouthOfUnionSquare Map and Tours. 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.