121-131 West 78th Street, Between Columbus
Avenues; A Row of 1886 Houses That Hold a Colorful Mystery
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
Published: May 25, 2003, Sunday
THE Spanish-born architect Rafael Guastavino brought a Moorish
influence to New York in his 1886 row of houses at 121-131 West 78th
Street. Sometime before 1968 all six houses mysteriously got a uniform
paint job of red and white, perhaps sparking the rainbow of colors --
yellow, green, white, blue, cream, brown -- that now decorate the
Now the owners of 129 East 78th, one of the houses widely known as the
''red and whites,'' plan to restore their facade by removing the red
and white to expose the original colors. But the question is, what's
Guastavino, who was born in Valencia in 1842, came to New York in 1881
from Barcelona with a knowledge of fireproof vaulted clay-tile
construction, which could span relatively large distances with much
less weight than timber or iron beams. Within a decade he was supplying
the system to other architects, who liked the lightweight and simple
He founded a company whose distinctive method, using vaults of clay
tile set in mortar, soon became widespread and is still visible in
places like the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal, the Boston Public
Library and the great public market space under the Queensboro Bridge,
which was recently restored. But in the 1880's, before he achieved
fame, he worked as an architect, with only minor success.
In 1885, The Real Estate Record and Guide reported that Guastavino was
designing a row of houses at 121-131 West 78th, between Columbus and
Amsterdam Avenues, for the French-born developer Bernard S. Levy. The
Record and Guide predicted that ''they will be novel in their
architecture, which will be a combination of Moorish and Renaissance.''
The row, completed in 1886, is a kaleidoscope of Moorish elements in
brick, with multiple-centered arches, intricate banding and unusual
projecting cornices. Guastavino also designed a row across the street,
at 118-134 West 78th, but in brownstone.
Levy lived at No. 121; the 1900 census records that Levy, 60, was in
residence there with his wife, Henrietta, three daughters and three
From the houses' earliest days, they had separate owners. In 1908, the
year Guastavino died, Charles E. Harrington, a journalist, made minor
alterations to No. 129; they perhaps included the Beaux Arts style iron
door at the front, a typical updating of the period.
By the 1920's residents were taking in boarders. The 1925 census shows
No. 127 occupied by a singer, Beattie Le Grange, 30 -- listed as the
head of household -- along with two musicians, another singer and two
dancers, Carolyn Johnson and Evelyn Chambers, both 17. All the
residents were women.
In 1968, the Guastavino scholar George R. Collins noted the ''gay and
varicolored manner'' of the exterior paint. Information about exterior
painting of brick houses of the Victorian period in New York is
generally scant, and these facades pose certain problems of
Guastavino's other Victorian projects, including several with brick
facades similar to this row, are known to have been unpainted. Would he
have painted Nos. 121-131 originally? If he did, was it to mitigate
some unusual condition that is now concealed? And even if he did, is it
realistic to expect that more than a century of later owners regularly
ratified his paint designs?
But is it any more realistic to expect that six separate owners
simultaneously carried out such a program at a later date, especially
when the houses were in decline? Neither explanation seems credible,
and yet the paint is there.
A series of black and white photographs at the Municipal Archives,
taken for tax purposes around 1940, do not conclusively indicate that
the row was painted at that time. The stone trim, now painted white,
does seems brighter than a normal stone surface, but that condition
might have been caused by shadow.
There are some signs of peeling paint in the photos on the upper
portions of No. 125, where some orange brick now shows through in
spots, but those signs might have been caused by damage to the film
negative. There appears to be some paint, but the color contrast is not
nearly so pronounced as it is now, a deep red and bright white.
Among current residents of the block who lived there in the 1960's,
there is even some disagreement about whether Nos. 121-131 were covered
in red and white in that decade. But one resident, who said she had
arrived on the block in the 1940's, said that the houses had definitely
been painted when she first moved in, and that she would have recalled
such an unusual painting campaign if it had occurred later.
Guastavino's ''red and whites'' seem to have had an effect, although
perhaps only subliminal, on the owners of the other houses on the
block, which is considerably more colorful than the usual street of row
Martha Stamm Connell, who renovated about a half dozen houses on the
block in the 1960's, played an important role in the color scheme of
the other homes. Ms. Connell recalled that she first saw the block
''through rose-colored glasses'' and soon converted old houses,
painting them mustard yellow, charcoal gray with white trim, lemon
yellow with white trim, and khaki green. Many had already been painted,
but they were soiled and dull.
IN 1972, Ms. Connell co-wrote, with Deirdre Stanforth, ''Buying and
Renovating a House in the City,'' which was published by Knopf.
Sometime in the last two decades the combined houses at Nos. 105-109
have been repainted a brilliant blue and cream, like a giant piece of
Wedgwood. Other homes have been redone in steely blue, lavender and
Most of the original interiors of the Guastavino houses at Nos. 121-131
have long since disappeared, but a few survive, like the apartment of
Benjamin Alfonsi, an actor and screenwriter who has the front parlor
floor studio at No. 127. His fireplace, although covered in paint, has
an intricate series of arches, twisted small columns, brown and gold
tile and cherub figures. The doors in the hallway have a cross-hatched
pattern with Moorish overtones.
The house of Brian and Jeanne Kerwin, at No. 129, is the most intact in
the row. They are finishing a multiyear interior restoration. Theirs is
the house with the Beaux-Arts-style iron door. Perhaps their Belle
Epoque fireplace, with bronze cresting, female nudes and intricate
raised decoration, was installed at the same time. They also have much
of the original Guastavino detailing: brilliant leaded glass transoms,
perforated Moorish-style panels, cross-hatching patterns on the doors
and a stair baluster with intricate fretwork.
Ms. Kerwin said that she and her husband would like to remove the red
and white paint as soon as money permits, perhaps by the end of the
year. Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation
Commission -- the row is part of the Central Park West Historic
District -- said that the commission encourages owners to seek permits
to remove later accretions on historic buildings.
But what if the colors date back to 1886? Sophisticated testing may
give the answer -- or then again it may not, leaving an unanswered but
colorful question in the New York streetscape.
Published: 05 - 25 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 11 , Column
1 , Page 5
Copyright New York Times.