Revisiting the History of the West 67th Street Artists’ Colony

A Landmark West talk offers a virtual stroll through a distinctive block

| 23 Jan 2021 | 05:00

Landmark West! — a nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of Upper West Side buildings and districts as landmarks — has recently embraced new technology and resources to reinvigorate the neighborhood’s history.

On Wednesday, the organization hosted guest speaker Andrew S. Dolkart over Zoom for a virtual stroll through the West 67th Street Artists’ Colony Historic District, composed of eight buildings considered among the first in Manhattan to combine artists’ studio spaces with living quarters in the early 1900’s. Dolkart’s lecture began at 6:30 p.m. and attracted 250 registrants, represented by small rectangular screens spread across 10 pages of Zoom’s Gallery View.

Pre-pandemic, Landmark West’s venue for in-person events limited the crowd to 70 people, according to Programs Director Andra Moss.

“There is something about speaking in person to people and interacting with people which is really great and which, of course, I miss,” Dolkart, 69, explained over the phone before the online event. “But there is something to be said for the fact that over 200 people are signed up for tonight.”

Dolkart is a Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; serves on Landmark West’s board; and is a co-founder of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. His deep dive into the West 67th Street Artists’ Colony Historic District will be complemented this Thursday at 6 p.m. with a Zoom talk from Robert Hudovernik on the Hotel des Artistes, one of the eight Artists’ Colony buildings.

Dolkart first studied the Artists’ Colony in the 1980s, when he nominated the block for recognition as a landmark by the National Register of Historic Places. But a second dive into the history of the buildings on West 67th Street — this time aided by access to new resources — allowed for a fuller picture.

Most of the evening was dedicated to Dolkart’s narration of the history of the Upper West Side’s Artists’ Colony as he screen-shared photos of the historic buildings, both in their original glory and in their mostly unchanged state now. Nearing the end of the event, Dolkart, Moss, and Executive Director Sean Khorsandi fielded questions from audience members, most of whom divulged their own personal connections to the historic block.

“We’ve Broadened That Net”

Moving Landmark West’s events online has also grown the organization’s following, though, according to Khorsandi, who’s worked with the nonprofit since 2015.

“Our membership helps keep us in business and keeps us staffed so that we can continue to follow our mission,” Khorsandi, 39, explained over the phone before the event. “And we also have general public people. Through Zoom, we’ve broadened that net. There’s going to be a lot of people from California, Baltimore, different groups have signed on and found interest in this.”

When he first dug into the history of the Artists’ Colony, Dolkart didn’t have access to the internet. During last week’s presentation, Dolkart showcased archival photographs of the buildings, marveled over original advertisements aimed at prospective renters, and quoted excerpts of old newspaper articles from The New York Times and other news outlets.

Dolkart described the architectural details of each building comprising the Artists’ Colony at length, making special note of the north-facing windows and 18-foot-tall ceilings at Sixty-Seventh Street Studios (the first of the Artists’ Colony buildings to be constructed), the “gothic” limestone details enmeshed with the brick façade of Central Park Studios, and the electric dumbwaiters in the Hotel des Artistes, among other eccentric design choices.

But he also offered evidence that some were initially unimpressed by the earlier architectural feats.

“My modern eyes have always found this building to be quite handsome,” Dolkart said of Sixty-Seventh Street Studios, “in its simple, well-proportioned street front. So, imagine how surprised I was, recently, to find this description in the 1903 New York Times article: ‘The front ... is not a thing of beauty.’”

“The author goes on to describe the façade as ‘depressing,’ ‘queer,’ ‘tall, bulky and sad,’” Dolkart later added.

Near-Original Condition

As more studio-style apartment buildings were added to the block, public opinion shifted and desire grew even among the not-so-artistically-inclined.

“The fact that non-artists wanted to live like artists is what led to the construction of the largest cooperative studio building on the block,” he said, referencing the Hotel des Artistes.

For the most part, these buildings appear to remain in near-original condition. Landmark West works to combat “insensitive change,” according to Khorsandi, which means that the group pushes for any updates, like the addition of ramps in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, to jive with the existing feel of each historical site.

“Buildings to a degree need to adapt,” Khorsandi explained. “But the important thing is to not lose the special character that makes that place unique, right?”

The neighborhood’s architecture prior to the development of the Artists’ Colony, however, was not as esteemed. Dolkart acknowledged during his lecture that those who dreamed up the Artists’ Colony were able to buy land in the area “at low cost” because West 67th Street had previously featured “stables, garages, factories,” and tenement buildings that housed a predominantly Black community.

Dolkart shared images of these buildings from the Museum of the City of New York.

The future character of the West 67th Street Artists’ Colony Historic District, though seemingly less precarious than that of the neighborhood which came before it, is still not set in stone. One event that Dolkart and Khorsandi both acknowledged might influence the flavor of the district is the impending move of Walt Disney Company’s ABC offices and studios from their current home (which includes buildings on West 66th Street), after which multiple buildings on the block are slated be demolished and reimagined.

By educating the local community — and an array of landmark-lovers from far and wide, now able to participate through Zoom — of the history nestled in their own backyards, Dolkart believes that Landmark West can stir up greater appreciation for architectural preservation.

“The fact that non-artists wanted to live like artists is what led to the construction of the [Hotel des Artistes].” Columbia professor Andrew S. Dolkart