Like the fashion industry, New York City real estate is big on turnover, but one Garment Center address protects the present and the past.
A spiderweb of scaffolding covers the Beaux-Arts facade of the Bryant Park Studios at 80 West 40th Street. As far as historic Midtown buildings go, it is pretty much a gem. Through the decades the turn-of the-century structure has housed a litany of photographers and artists — Bert Stern, Irving Penn, Norman Rockwell, Fernand Léger, Edward Steichen, J.C. Leyendecker, Florine Stettheimer, Kurt Seligmann, Leon Gordon, Haskell Caffin, Brad Hall and Edward Suydam among them. Remnants of its lore can be found in its “Vault Museum,” the basement space that doubles as Mountain Development Corp.’s New York office.
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Its lofty, largely naturally lit studios rarely come up for rent, as Stan Herman can attest. The 91-year-old designer has worked there since the early Seventies and recently renewed his lease for two years. Frances Valentine, Nick Graham, Trina Turk, Eleventy, Moose Knuckles Canada and interior designer Thad Hayes are some of the tenants at the Bryant Park property.
While most New York City museums blast news of their exhibitions via social media, this underground one is more likely to be discovered by a dogged art history student or curious tourists. Property manager David Seeve is the unofficial historian and the building’s superintendent; Charlie Saliba is the intrepid restorer. During a tour of the subterranean exhibition — a mishmash of photographs, letters, art and other mementos, Seeve said, “Our job is to protect it, preserve it but also to restore anything that we can find. That’s really our passion. Managing a building is the same thing every day, the same thing every year. But what we love to work on is finding parts of the building that we can restore and put on display.”
Looking at a photo of Steichen, Seeve noted the late artist worked on the ninth floor. He then turned his attention to a shot of the sculptor Jo Davidson, a former sixth-floor tenant. The bronze of Gertrude Stein that can be found across the street near the entrance to the Bryant Park Grill was based on a model of Davidson’s, Seeve said. There are photos, menus and blueprints from the members’-only women’s club, the Beaux Arts Café, that occupied the ground floor and part of the basement decades ago. “This area here that is now our workshop was originally a ratskeller, a German beer hall. Our office where we are standing was originally the kitchen. This shaft directly above my desk was a double dumb waiter so that tenants upstairs could order from the restaurant and have the food go directly up to their space,” Seeve said. “It’s amazing when you think about it.”
After living in Paris before the turn of the century, the New Jersey-born portrait artist Archibald Anderson returned to the U.S. and set out to build an artist-friendly building for creatives like himself who were returning from Europe. That mission was accomplished with the construction in 1901 of Beaux Arts Studio, which was the combination of four lots at the southeast corner of West 40th Street and Sixth Avenue. He also had the foresight that artists and tenants would never lose that light even if tall buildings were erected, thanks to Bryant Park. Anderson lived in the building’s upper two floors until his death in 1940.
Anderson’s eclectic circle of friends included Theodore Roosevelt, who named him the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Other traces of his fabled life can be found on the museum’s walls — including a black-and-white photo of him on skis with Prince Pierre of Monaco on Anderson’s ranch in Wyoming. Gesturing toward a photo of him in uniform, Seeve said, “He invented the hunting season to try to save animals from being hunted into extinction, which made him incredibly unpopular out west. He really had to come back here.”
The side notes that he shares have been mined from his research of Anderson and the address. Seeve has also explored the building’s history with the help of testimonies from former tenants and residents. When photographer Douglas Kirkland paid a visit last year, for example, he settled a gentlemanly dispute between Herman and Hayes about whose airy space previously housed Penn. Kirkland, who worked for Penn early in his career, sided with Hayes (a decision that Herman still disputes). Motioning towards a photo of a man with a wide smile, Seeve identified him as Tony Vaccaro, who stopped by a few years ago unannounced to say he lived in the building in the Thirties. Vaccaro had mentioned that he was a photographer, but what he didn’t say was that HBO filmed a documentary about his life, or that he was first a World War II photographer and then a major league fashion one.
The Vault Museum does not advertise, but Seeve gives tours once or twice a month based on e-mail requests. On average, two to three people — often art historians, history buffs or tourists who notice the Landmark plaque — drop by each month. More often than not, they have no idea there is a mini-museum.
Anderson’s appreciation for artistry can be seen in the Penthouse West that he used to live in. Renovations in 2008 uncovered a stained-glass skylight. There is also an onyx and crystal fireplace that Anderson had made with stones from his Wyoming ranch. In what was once referred to as an “Ocean Bath,” Anderson built a shell-shaped brass sink with a line of abalone shells used to trim the walls. The glass greenhouse he used for growing all of his vegetables has been damaged beyond repair, though. A photo of his former residence shows an organ piano in the wall, tapestries, antiques and antiquities. An Italian door in his New York City residence was said to have been obtained by him from a church in Greece, Seeve said. Recent renovations for Ole & Steen unearthed original flooring — dating back nearly 120 years or longer — from the Beaux Arts Cafe, which Saliba finished with resin to display in the museum.
Another rehab project led to a momentous find in one of the ninth-floor spaces. After chipping away at the 10-foot plaster fireplace that had been painted fluorescent green for a photo shoot years ago, it was determined by appraisers that the fireplace could be up to 300 years old. That makes it a rarity in the U.S., Seeve said. The museum’s curiosities include an old handwritten letter from Penn to his stepdaughter Mia Fonssagrives-Solow, which had been trapped in the building’s mail chute for decades. After finding it a few years ago, he tracked down Fonssagrives-Solow, who decided it must have been written in 1954, while she was in boarding school. A framed photo of her encased in glass with a few of the purple postage stamps that Penn had been trying to send her hangs on one of the walls.
All in all, the Vault Museum opens a window to a now largely forgotten time in New York. Seeve said, “People who are into art and art history are blown away by it. It really is an amazing, and almost undiscovered piece of history. Engineers love the space because it is cool. Tourists, who are walking around and might not be able to see the inside of a building, get a kick out of it. They may have gone to the [Public] Library or Grand Central. But this is the sort of building that unless you were inside here, you would never know about it.”