GRP001-14.jpg (60194 bytes) New York Architecture Images-Gramercy Park

“The Block Beautiful”


various, renovated 1909 Frederick J. Sterner.


East 19th St., bet. Third Ave and Irving Place.










124: Note Dutch-style gables

132: (1910; Frederick Sterner) Actresses Theda Bara, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Ethel Barrymore and Helen Hayes all are said to have lived here at one time or another; it also claims muckraker Ida Tarbell.

146: Painter George Bellows lived here 1910-25. Note studio skylight. Friends like Emma Goldman, John Reed and Eugene O'Neill often came over.

There's a melange of architectural styles among the 19th and early 20th century buildings that face each other along the tree-lined street.  Actresses Helen Hayes, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, and Ethel Barrymore lived at various times at No. 132.  George Bellows, one of America’s renowned painters, lived and worked at No. 146 until his death in 1925.

     I decided to get a sandwich to take with me to eat later at the exhibition, and headed toward  Park Avenue.  Within less than 100 feet, I was in a more familiar New York.  Traffic was bumper-to-bumper and street were clogged with warmly dressed, fast-walking pedestrians, a good portion of them on their cell phones.

     At the corner of Park and East 20th, I squinted north into the snow, but it was impossible to see much in the distance.  Calvary Episcopal Church, a large edifice built in the 1840s, stands at 21st and Park, and has a brown facade, but today it looked as gray as the sky.  Designed in a Gothic Revival style, the church had early generations of the Roosevelt, Astor and Vanderbilt families as members of its congregation.   

     A man selling bagels from a mobile booth tried to warm up by hunching over heat rising from his coming from his equipment and steam from his coffee maker,  while a  line of New Yorkers waited for their on-the-go breakfasts.

     East 20th Street becomes Gramercy Park South along the southern end of the park. Turning onto Gramercy Park South, I passed No. 10, once the home and studio of renowned painter Robert Henri, leader of the "Ash Can" school of art, a group of realist artists in the first decade of the 20th century; they believed in "art for life's sake" instead of the popularly quoted "art for art's sake," and taught that the mundane -- even tenements, saloons and city streets -- could be beautiful.

Known as “The Block Beautiful” - this is a row of mainly stuccoed buildings that were remodeled early in the 20th century by Frederick J. Sterner. The block was an informal colony for artists and writers in the 1920s and 1930s, such as author Ida Tarbell, painter Cecilia Beaux, and the sculptor Zolnay. Music critic and novelist Carl Van Vechten, lived at 151 East 19th Street and with his neighbors, painters George Bellows and Robert Chanler, threw wild parties, about which Ethyl Barrymore commented, "I went there in the evening a young girl and came away in the morning an old woman."


    Our Street


  1. Our street is East Ninteenth Street in Manhattan, midway between Union and Madison Squares, one block south of Gramercy Park. The Survey Graphic offices have been located on it for more than a quarter of a century author lives on it. It has a distinct individuality and an undeniable charm.
  2. Our street is not one of the neediest cases.
  3. It does not cry for immediate slum clearance. It is not a smart street, a roaring thoroughfare, nor is it a mere bystreet. It's an old street, still hale and hearty but showing clearly the ravages of time, with decrepitude and despair not far ahead. It is still the scene of bustling business activity. It still provides homes for thousands of self-supporting Yorkers. But year by year the corrosion of obsolescence and decay bite a little deeper, with no regenerative force counteract it. What can be done to avert disaster? The answer to this question is of importance not only to those live, work, or own property on our street, but to the public at large. For our street, while highly individual in some respects, as are the human "cases" which social and economic readjustment, is in the essentials of its history thoroughly typical of many old streets in New York and other American cities.


    Old Nineteenth Street

  4. Our street began its activ career time in the second quarter of the Nineteenth century as a part of the unkempt and irregularly built fringe of a city whose center of development was south of Union Square. It is not until 1851, however, that we get a clear picture of it. In that year, one Doggett published a "New York City Street Directory" which listed by street numbers householder south of Twenty-fifth Street. Our street, for the most part, then housed, for the part, the shops and homes of skilled men. There were carpenters, painters, cabinetmakers, dressmakers, a blacksmith, a dancing teacher, and a sprinkling of laborers both white and colored. substantial citizens already had homes there. Some notion, however, of the kind of street it was may be gathered the fact that the great Horace Greeley who lived at Number 35, Broadway and Fourth Avenue, goats in his back yard which on Sundays sometimes followed the family to church on Fifth Avenue.
  5. The next twenty years saw the second phase in our street's development. Out Broadway from Union Square moved New York's elite, spilling over into Gramercy Park and the side streets in its neighborhood. From the western end of our street, where the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church shed an aura of respectable piety from 1853 to 1875, east to First Avenue there came to be an almost uninterrupted procession of high-stoop single-family houses. They varied as one went eastward from massive brownstone to plain brick, from the gloomy magnificence of Peter Goelet's mansion at the northeast corner of Broadway, where peacocks strutted in the iron-railed front garden, to the homes of simple Smiths and Joneses. There was, however, a uniformity of living patterns and a degree of social integration in the street of that day which it has since completely lost.
  6. The third phase of our street's story somewhat overlapped its second. Retail trade marched out Broadway hot on the heels of its customers. The departure of the Fifth Avenue Church in 1875 for its present location at Fifty-fifth Street shows how the tide was then running. Well before 1890 the retail center of New York was apparently firmly settled in the region between Union and Madison Squares. The Peter Goelet house hung on until 1897, but long before that ours had become a noted shopping street. Arnold Constable & Co. occupied the block from Fifth Avenue to Broadway on the south side. Across Broadway, W. & J. Sloane dispensed costly carpets and furniture, and on the northwest corner The Gorham Company dealt in silverware. Eastward from Broadway, toward Fourth Avenue, smaller retail stores held forth all through the gay nineties and into the first decade of the new century.
  7. But once-palatial stores grew dingy and their equipment obsolete. They were no longer—despite the Fourth Avenue subway—conveniently accessible to their best customers. So instead of rebuilding on their old locations, their proprietors moved to upper Fifth Avenue. As retail trade went out, wholesale trade came in. In fact, the whole history of the central backbone of Manhattan, from soon after the Revolution to the first World War, was the story of a pursuit race in which customers ran first, followed in succession by retail and then wholesale trade.
  8. Wholesalers, especially those who treat or process commodities, require much space at low rentals. The spacious but antiquated buildings of the departing retailers were readily adaptable to such purposes. Wholesaling of woolens and other textiles had already approached our street by way of Fourth Avenue some time before the exodus of the department stores. For the past thirty years our two and one-half western blocks have been occupied almost exclusively by wholesalers, chiefly of textiles but including also an amazing variety of commodities—toys, novelties, clothing, furniture, and tobacco.


    The General Grant Period

  9. Thus, in four stages, at least the western end of our street progressed from shanty-town to wholesale trade. But then all progress stopped. No more of the street has been absorbed by business in the past quarter of a century. When, three decades ago, The Survey came to perch on the top floor of Number 112, its office, midway between Fourth Avenue and Irving Place, marked the eastern outpost of the wholesale district. It still does. Even existing commercial facilities are by no means fully occupied. In almost every doorway there is a sign "Floors to Let." There is nothing on the horizon to take the place of wholesaling if it should go elsewhere.
  10. The remainder of our street is still residential except for the two blocks nearest to the East River. These blocks are devoted to laundries, creameries, bottling works, garages, lime and cement warehouses, junk yards and other "outcast" industries requiring cheap land and banished to the outskirts in most cities by modern zoning ordinances. These two blocks and perhaps the one just west of them, formerly our street's only slum but now largely vacant, seem permanently destined for heavy industry. The prophetic land-use maps recently published by the New York City Planning Commission so indicate.
  11. This leaves three and one-half blocks, once lined with rows of high-stoop single-family residences, which commerce and industry have never conquered. They have been invaded by a couple of moderate sized hospitals and, more significantly, by a thriving drug manufactory which, beginning at Eighteenth Street and Third Avenue in 1845, has gradually spread to Nineteenth Street and even threatens further expansion. Taken together, however, these exceptional uses do not alter the essentially residential character of these long blocks.
  12. Apartment life came to our street a little over half a century ago when the "Florida Flats" offered superior accommodations for substantial people in a five-story walk-up which still stands at the corner of Second Avenue. A few inexpressibly ugly "new law" tenements, with their untidy fire escapes, mar the scene east of Third Avenue. There are two large modern apartments, a few smaller ones, a hotel and the tall rear extension of the National Arts Club. But the overwhelming majority of all lots are still occupied by the original structures of the 1870's.


    The "Block Beautiful"

  13. There was at one time a strong movement toward their renovation. Between Irving Place and Third Avenue, adjacent to Gramercy Park, an attractive and complete job of face lifting was accomplished over an eighteen-year period, from 1909 to 1926. Under artistic influences the owners knocked the high stoops off their old houses, painted their red brick fronts in varying shades, hung shutters of contrasting hue, planted sidewalk trees, ranged privet hedges round areaways and set out verdant window boxes. Solicitous real estate men call it the "Block Beautiful" and it takes Garden Club prizes. Some of the renovated houses are still occupied by single families. One of them was again remodelled in 1936, for Assistant Secretary of State—then city chamberlain—A. A. Berle, Jr. The apartments into which others have been divided find a ready market The cost of face lifting has been amply repaid. This success, however, was due in considerable degree to the block's very favorable location as well as to the completeness and artistry of a venture to which some property owners were only slowly converted.
  14. Such measures, however, only checked—they cannot prevent—the inevitable processes of decay. A gallant old lady who puts on paint and finery to battle a little longer with a hostile world is an old lady still. Time, in spite of all she can do, is always catching up with her. The pleasant afterglow of the "Block Beautiful" cannot last forever. New buildings must ultimately replace the old or it will go the "way of all flesh." No new building has been erected since 1912 and building permits for even minor reconstruction have been issued for only eight buildings since 1926.
  15. Elsewhere in the street individual and sporadic renovation has been much less efficacious. One modernized front in a block of a dozen septuagenarians looks like a show girl in an old lady's home. Its rental value is depressed by its shabby neighbors. Moreover, there is not reward in lifting the faces of houses lost in the shadows of tall buildings, imprisoned behind the barriers of an elevated structure, or declassed by the presence of low grade tenements. Many owners in the other residential blocks have discouraged from even trying renovation. The results have been picturesque but abortive as a means of diverting the economic consequences of old age.
  16. The most significant fact for all our street's residential blocks is that development has ceased. Renovation is at a standstill. No new construction has been projected since the depression. The market for high rental apartments in our street is already saturated. Land value are too high to make new low rent projects feasible. For three quarters of a century modernity struggled to transform our street, only finally to give up trying.


    Decay—or Development

  17. If our street could be frozen in its present state, like Daphne in the famous statue—part woman and part tree—there would be little ground for grumbling. There would always be an eerie from which the Survey Graphic could swoop down on perplexing social problems. The dwellings nearby, such as that which has served Ida Tarbell for a workshop and others like it, would continue to shelter adepts of the arts. The Block Beautiful would be as immortal as Keats's Grecian urn. Old memories would still cling to our street and new and happy ones accumulate. Old mellow houses with no more patches on their brownstone steps or breaks in their area railings than now, would provide a perpetual succession of "Mrs. Lirripers" with decent rooms to rent. Quaint shops would always have patrons. Apartments year after year would be mostly rented. A never ending succession of boxes, bales, crates and packages, would flow in and out of busy warehouses, and there would never be more "For Rent" signs than today.
  18. But such a projection of the present into the future is impossible. When development ceases, decay goes on uninterrupted. Barring a revolution in present trends of population and business, our street will go on getting worse until property values become low enough to tempt fresh capital to undertake its improvement. The future of our street, like that of many another from Maine to California, is forlorn because urban growth has slowed down, disclosing that business and industry cannot fill the gaps left by the outward movement of population. The land use studies of the New York City Planning Commission contemplate a great reduction in the area of Manhattan Island now devoted to business. They are purposely vague as to just where it will take place. Our street may have less business a generation hence than it has today. It certainly will not have more. At the same time, the demand for high class living accommodations in its general neighborhood is declining, to the advantage of other sections of the city and its environs.
  19. In fact, not only is our street helpless to check these forces, but no power can check them for it, or any other similar street, alone; it is a regional problem. To save our street a new direction must be given to the forces which determine real estate development. To counteract the forces which are now drawing population from its neighborhood, it will be necessary to alter the pattern of its development in such a way as to create for persons of moderate income a balance between its advantages and those of outlying sections, as to rent, accessibility, light and air, quiet, and play facilities for children. It obviously necessitates a complete readjustment of street lines in relation to open spaces. Such rehabilitation of a blighted area can be carried out only on a large scale. It cannot even be done block by block if the cure is to be permanent. It must be done for a whole neighborhood at once.
  20. Private enterprise, if it is to tackle this vast job, needs the power of eminent domain to make the assembly of property on an adequate scale possible. It needs at least a temporary subsidy in some form of relief from taxation.
  21. There seems to be no available alternative to such a policy. Public housing activity, it is generally admitted, should be confined to the distinctly low rent field. Private enterprise is helpless to undertake rehabilitation unless it is implemented and officially encouraged in so doing. If neither government nor private enterprise does anything about it, our street and the other older portions of our cities, outside the central business district, are due for a long and destructive period of progressive deterioration.
  22. The ability to pay for increasing services called for by growth at the periphera, including vast systems of highways, tunnels, bridges, and rapid transit facilities, will be correspondingly diminished. We might as well face the fact that urban decentralization, however beneficent it may ultimately prove, portends so much disruption of established property values and so near an approach to municipal bankruptcy as to constitute a serious threat to the economic stability of the nation in its current crisis.
  23. If, therefore, the plight of our street has helped even a little to focus attention on means of controlling and overcoming the spread of urban blight, it will have rendered a service comparable to some extent at least to the stirrings of the conscience of the nation which Horace Greeley concocted at Number 35 and the Survey Graphic has directed from Number 112. 

Streetscapes/The Frederick Sterner House, at 139 East 19th Street; An Architect Who Turned Brownstones Into Gems 
Published: June 29, 2003, Sunday 

THE town house at 139 East 19th Street was the first building designed in New York by Frederick Sterner, one of the city's most innovative architects. His 1908 complete redesign and renovation of an existing building -- which he did for himself -- was a major achievement for Sterner, then a newcomer to New York, who would go on to bring a touch of color to several of Manhattan's drab brownstone side streets. Now four years of renovations to the building are nearly complete, and new owners moved in last year. 
Born in 1862, apparently in London, Frederick Junius Sterner followed his German-born father, Julius, to the United States in either 1878 or 1882 -- the records are conflicting. Julius Sterner made money ''selling booze to the prospectors'' in California, according to his grandnephew Michael, and became a liquor merchant in Chicago in the 1880's. Julius had several children, including Albert Sterner, who was well known as a painter by the turn of the 20th century. 

Frederick Sterner appears in Chicago directories in the 1880's as a draftsman for the architect Frank E. Edbrooke; nothing is yet known of his earlier training. By the 1890's Sterner was living in Denver, designing buildings under his own name there and in other areas of the West. His work at that time appears to have been eclectic, somewhat picturesque, like the 1901 Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs. 

In 1906, he moved to New York, where Albert already lived. Frederick first lived in an old row house at 23 West 20th Street, but in the summer of 1908 he moved to a block of moldy old brownstones, buying the one at 139 East 19th, between Irving Place and Third Avenue. 

What to do with mid-19th-century brownstones -- built by the mile, of identical boring design, awkwardly planned and often poorly constructed -- was a subject that puzzled writers at the time, and the question was in the air when Sterner arrived. His earlier projects offered no hint of what he was to introduce in New York. He removed the stoop, covered the dark brownstone with a coat of light cream-colored stucco and replanned the interior. It is now a common approach, but nothing like it had been done in New York before. 

Perhaps by design, Sterner's architectural sleight of hand sparked a wave of renovations on the block. Within a few years, several rebuilders changed the East 19th Street block into one of tinted stucco, iron balconies, Arts and Crafts style tilework, flower boxes and projecting tile roofs, mostly in a Mediterranean style and clearly embodying a new vision for an aging city. 

In 1910, The Real Estate Record and Guide praised Sterner's back yard. It said he had turned what had been a traditionally dank space with board fences into a ''fairylike grotto'' with vine-clad walls, an arbor and a fountain. 

The 1910 census recorded Sterner there with his sister, Maude, 28; both were single. Her obituary in The New York Times in 1933 said that she had been an interior designer involved with the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., on which her brother had worked as an architect. 

Sterner remained on East 19th Street until 1915, when he moved up to and renovated 154 East 63rd, which became the center of another enclave of remodeled houses. He moved again around 1918, to 150 East 62nd, and that became the center of another coordinated remodeling effort. 

Around this time the architect Rosario Candela -- who in the 1920's would design a series of superluxury buildings on Park Avenue -- worked for Sterner, but little is known of Candela's role or of Sterner's office. Sterner may have been involved as an investor in his block reclamation plans. 

In 1919 Sterner told The Times that not every old house needed alterations of the type he had devised. Referring to Greek Revival style houses on Charlton Street in Greenwich Village, he said that ''when you go back 100 or 150 years, you get a good house.'' 

In 1922 he moved to what he labeled ''Parge House,'' a wild stucco fantasy at 65th and Lexington, with great sections of whirling vines and grimacing faces in pure white stucco, with medieval touches. Like his other houses, the interior was self-consciously antique, with imitation vintage paneling, furniture and other details, resembling an old English house. 

George H. Shorey, in a 1924 review in International Studio magazine, wrote that inside, ''time stopped -- nay, it reversed itself some three or four centuries.'' He described the exterior as ''a riot of arabesques.'' Looking retrospectively at Sterner's effect on the New York streetscape, Shorey said, ''It is a sluggish imagination that cannot be captivated by pink and scarlet geraniums against gray stucco, or solid green shutters against a background of red, with well-watered window boxes ambuscading small-paned windows.'' He called Sterner's innovations ''as enthralling as gypsy music.'' By this time, dozens of architects had followed Sterner's lead, and the renovation of whole districts of brownstones was in full swing. 

Sterner auctioned the contents of his house and studio in 1924 and moved to London. His sister moved with him, and she married in 1926. Nothing is known of his activities in London, but his sister was with him in 1931 when he died in Rome. Sterner never married. He left her his estate, valued at more than $500,000. 

Over the years Sterner's house has gone through several hands. Owners renovating brownstone exteriors sometimes seek out the familiar, and reconstruct the facades without evaluating their character. A previous owner scored the house's stucco to imitate lugubrious brownstone panels -- the exact opposite of what Sterner wanted. 

THE current owners, Marie and William Samuels, moved in last year after several years of renovations that have transformed most of the interior. On the ground floor they have turned the rear section into a double-height room, high and bright, with modern furniture and contemporary artwork, including a giant white painted antler-chandelier and a vase of huge false pink roses. 

On the second floor front, they have rebuilt one room with some of Sterner's light oak linenfold paneling. This room serves as a balcony over the tall living room, to which the giant brick rear facade of the Brotherhood Synagogue on Gramercy Park South forms a dramatic backdrop. Although Sterner's rough brick garden walls survive, little else in the house is original. 

Although Sterner was among the most thoughtful and original architects in the history of the city, the preservation of his ''gypsy music'' has frequently hit sour notes. The Landmarks Preservation Commission included the 19th Street block in the Gramercy Park Historic District in 1966 but treated it as a generic group of buildings, without mentioning Sterner. His light artistic designs do not figure in the traditional architectural canon, and so seem incidental, even trivial. 

But the architectural historian Andrew Dolkart is writing a book on Sterner and the brownstone remodeling movement. The tentative title, Mr. Dolkart says, is ''Ugly Ducklings Into Swans'' -- a title that perfectly captures the contribution Sterner made to the Manhattan streetscape. 

Published: 06 - 29 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 11 , Column 1 , Page 7 

Copyright New York Times.