Painters such as James McNeill Whistler and Childe Hassam exported the streetscape from Paris to America by creating various impressionistic vistas or bird’s-eye city views. As society became increasingly urbanized, art took a less genteel direction. Members of New York Ashcan movement urged painters to drop orthodoxy and depict the bustling streets of the city.
Although not an “organized” school of painting, the unity of the group consisted in a desire to grasp urban realities. The name ashcan (dustbin) was initially hurled against these artists as a term of derision – it became a banner of distinction.
As committed urbanists, these painters were both observers and participants. John French Sloan, Robert Henri and friends created a dynamic record of metropolitan street culture. Although attacked by their opponents as being “devotees of the ugly,” these artists looked for aesthetic vitality in ordinary life.
Jefferson Market Courthouse
On March 22, 1912, John Sloan made a diary note referring to his new studio in Greenwich Village: “Found a loft with fine North by West light. Eleventh floor of a new triangular building at 4th Street and Sixth Avenue.” Built in 1907, the space offered a wonderful sight of Village life that would inspire him throughout his prolific career. In 1922 he painted the building in a nocturnal vista – titled “The City from Greenwich Village” – with the Sixth Avenue Elevated speeding past.
From his studio, Sloan had a view of Jefferson Market Courthouse. Once the site of a tall octagonal wooden fire tower and a market place for local produce, the Gothic Courthouse (serving the Third Judicial District) with its signature clock tower replaced the original structures at Sixth Avenue & 10th Street.
The building, a New York City landmark (now restored as a library), was designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux. It was completed in 1877 as part of a group of brick and limestone buildings. Both architects were born and educated in England. Both based their efforts on the High Victorian Gothic style.
Having settled in New York City, they joined up as partners. Their 1874 design of the Courthouse with its sloping roofs, gables, pinnacles and stained glass windows, brought a corner of Victorian London to Greenwich Village. The frieze on the outside of the building contains scenes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
The building housed both a police and civil court whilst the arched basement was used as a holding area for prisoners. John Sloan loved the red-brick building and in 1917 he painted “Jefferson Market, Sixth Avenue,” one of many cityscapes. His real interest however was concerned with happenings inside the court.
Sloan was a regular visitor of the Night Court to observe the human drama when men and women were brought inside and charged, typically for drunkenness, brutishness, prostitution or petty crime. Fascinated by the tragicomedy enacted, he appreciated these sessions as more stirring than “the great majority of plays.” Some of the cases that reached the court were truly dramatic.
Trial of the Century
Jefferson Market Courthouse had been center of national attention in June 1906 when Harry Kendall Thaw, son of a Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron, appeared before the magistrate and was remanded without bail for murder. The popular press described the case as the “trial of the century.”
Stanford White was New York City’s most famous architect of the Gilded Age. Many edifices raised by his firm McKim, Mead & White were masterpieces of American architecture. His commissions included a Madison Avenue mansion for J. P. Morgan (now the Morgan Library) and the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park. Between 1879 and 1915, his firm built more than 900 clubs, hotels, museums, universities, libraries and theaters. He was also responsible for New York’s ornate Penn Station.
A tall and flamboyant character, Stanford was a collector of costly art and antiquities. He was also a sexual predator. For some considerable time he was able to conceal his obscene behaviour behind the veneer of being a married man with a luxurious self-designed family home and weekend retreat named Box Hill in Saint James, Long Island.
White also maintained a multi-story apartment with a rear entrance at 22 West 24th Street. One room, painted in green, was outfitted with a red velvet swing which he used as a means to groom under-age girls. His victims came from struggling families, youngsters who were unlikely to resists the lure of his wealth and “generosity.” One of these girls was Evelyn Nesbit, an aspiring model and actress. In 1901, with approval of her mother, White offered Evelyn his help in getting a foothold in professional circles.
Having moved mother and daughter from a boarding house into a hotel, he showered Evelyn with money and gifts. Early in their acquaintance, White invited the teenager to his apartment for dinner. He spiked her champagne with a drug and raped her after she passed out. She was sixteen years old.
Evelyn married Harry Thaw in 1905, a young man with a history of mental problems. He became obsessed with White’s rape of his wife and was consumed by hatred towards a man who appeared to be the toast of society. On the evening of June 26, 1906, Harry and Evelyn enjoyed a meal at Jean & Louis Martin’s fashionable restaurant, before attending the opening-night of the musical revue Mam’zelle Champagne at the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden (designed by Stanford White). Thaw noticed that White was amongst the diners who made their way to the theatre.
During the show’s final song “I Could Love a Million Girls,” Thaw got up and approached White with a pistol. He fired three shots at point-blank range, killing his fifty-two year old adversary on the spot. At the trial, Thaw was acquitted by reason of insanity and committed to a mental asylum until his release in 1915. Never before had Jefferson Market Courthouse seen a more sensational trial, but there was more drama to come.
Mae West on Welfare Island
Before becoming a film star and sex symbol in Los Angeles, Mary Jane “Mae” West had started her stage career in New York City. Born in Brooklyn, her father John Patrick West was a prize fighter; her Bavaria-born mother a corset and fashion model. By the age of fourteen Mae worked on the vaudeville circuit. She made her Broadway debut in September 1911 as a singer and dancer in the revue A La Broadway at the Folies-Bergere in West 46th Street.
Mae West’s major ambition was to challenge Victorian morality. Using the pen name Jane Mast, she set out to write and produce her own plays. Her first comedy-drama Sex premiered April 26, 1926, at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre in which Mae herself starred in the role of the prostitute Margy LaMont.
The play received scathing reviews. Critics used terms such as crude, inept or vulgar, but the loudest objections came from the army of moral crusaders. In spite of the negative press, Sex drew large audiences. It was the only play on Broadway that season to stay open through the summer and into the following year (375 performances for a combined audience of 325,000 people).
After persistent complaints from members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, the NYPD raided the theatre in February 1927. Members of the troupe were charged with obscenity. Mae was taken to Jefferson Market Court House, where she was prosecuted and sentenced to ten days at the workhouse for “corrupting the morals of youth.” She could have paid a fine and been let off. Always keen to attract publicity, West accepted the prison sentence and made the most of the opportunity.
While incarcerated on Roosevelt Island (then known as Welfare Island), she dined with the warden and his wife. She informed reporters that she had worn silk panties while serving time in lieu of the “burlap” other inmates had to wear. West turned her jail stint into a celebration. She served eight days with a reduction of two days for “good behavior.”
Mae became a national figure with journalists following her every move. The “bad girl” was turned into an idol, an unflappable character who had climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.
Triangle Shirtwaist Company
The first wave of Jewish refugees escaping persecution in Russia, primarily to New York City, began in the 1880s. Amongst the immigrants were Isaac Harris and Max Blanck who arrived independently from each other during the early 1890s and started work in the garment industry. In 1900 the two men founded the Triangle Waist Company with a first shop on Wooster Street, Greenwich Village. Producing more than 1,000 blouses a day, they were nicknamed the “Shirtwaist Kings.”
In November 1909, the company employed about five hundred workers. Located by then on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building on Washington Place, the firm was notorious for low wages and long hours imposed on its young, mainly female immigrant workers. A regime of harsh rules and steep fines triggered a series of strikes, but the company’s owners struck back.
Pickets were harassed by hired thugs and bent police officers. Dozens of striking women were arrested. They were taken to Jefferson Market and tried in the Night Court, a tactic meant to intimidate strikers as they joined the company of prostitutes in the dock. As the strikes persisted and the decrease in productivity began to hurt, Harris and Black agreed to some demands, but they remained opposed to a union. Thirteen months after the end of the strike, tragedy struck.
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor forcing employees to flee. The owners were safe on the tenth floor. On the ninth floor, however, workers were unaware of the fire until smoke filled the room and flames blocked the exit doors (which were locked in any case to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks). Out of two hundred workers on that floor 146 perished, many of them jumping to their death. It was the deadliest disaster in New York’s industrial history.
Harris and Black were indicted on seven counts of manslaughter, but were acquitted of all charges. The jury’s verdict sparked public outrage. Observers were shocked that the immigrant owners walked free from their brutal exploitation of fellow immigrants. The fact that parasite capitalists had escaped justice became part of the local political narrative. After the trial, labor organizations and social movements received a wave of support in their drive to improve safety standards and organize trade unions. The Village turned left.
The bohemian intellectuals who gathered at Greenwich Village in the 1910s inspired both social and aesthetic movements. Many of the participants were products of an Ivy League education, but they tended to shun conventional career moves. Instead, they sought to combine art and politics.
The first issue of The Masses appeared in January 1911. Dealing with a range of current social issues such as freedom of speech, racial equality and sweatshop labor, the journal represented the Village spirit. John Sloan acted as its art editor and held that position until January 1916. Under his direction, ample space was given to the visual arts with a multitude of political cartoons and striking covers.
The Village fostered a Parisian salon culture where lavish parties were thrown by socialites and cultural radicals (including Sloan’s patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney). Socialists, anarchists, feminists and modernist artists met at these get-togethers in a festival of subcultures. They added a novel aspect to the demand for change that would become a vital part of future social agitation – protest as a celebration. The “struggle” of old was replaced by a playful projection of alternative options. Modernism in art became linked to an array of progressive political positions.
Stanford White was raised at 118 East 10th Street in a row of Renaissance Revival buildings, East Village, designed in 1861 by James Renwick. He would leave his mark on the locality. By imitating a Roman triumphal monument, White’s marble arch in Washington Square Park, a fixture of Greenwich Village, was designed to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789.
On January 23, 1917, John Sloan and fellow painter Marcel Duchamp, poet Gertrude Dick, and three actors of the local Provincetown Playhouse climbed the spiral interior staircase of the Arch. In an act of mock insurrection, the six “Arch Conspirators” hung Chinese lanterns and red balloons, spread out blankets, sipped tea, recited poems and fired cap pistols, declaring Greenwich a “Free and Independent Republic.”
In true Village style, the rebels objected to America’s foreign policy on the eve of the nation entering the First World War. Soon after the stunt was brought to an end, federal government moved to suppress public expressions of dissent by arresting pacifists and deporting ‘alien’ radicals. The Village would never be the same again.
Illustrations, from above: John Sloan’s “The City from Greenwich Village,” 1922 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC); Sloan’s, “Jefferson Market, Sixth Avenue,” 1917 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts); Harry Thaw – Stanford White headline in the New York American on June 26, 1906; Mae West poster advertising her 1926 play Sex in which she played the lead role; John Sloan’s “Arch Conspirators,” 1917 (Metropolitan Museum of Art).