The Village: New York’s Bohemia – Illuminating and Entertaining

Though Barry Lewis is primarily an architectural historian, the New-York Historical Society has requested he feature notable women in this presentation about the development of New York’s first, early 20th century Bohemian neighborhood -Greenwich Village. The lecturer stands in front of huge images of maps and photographs of the area before and after it became artist central. His speech is rapid fire, enthusiastic, and peppered with humor.

Apparently no one knows the derivation of the area’s name. In the 1810s and 1820s part of what’s now the Village was literally off the grid, its streets crossing into each other at angles… “which is why we never know where we are.” Washington Square Park was Potter’s field and no one would go west of Sixth Avenue even after the Jefferson Court House Complex was built for fear of catching something like tuberculosis.  (Just the courthouse is left now.)

New York University opened a brand new building just in time for the stock market crash. Instead of putting more money into it for academic purposes, the school rented rooms out to artists like Winslow Homer and Richard Morris Hunt. “It became the first artist building in the city.” These were not the proverbial struggling painters, most had money. All the studios opened into each other through doors so that one could pass from one to the next during sales.

The Italians took over from the Irish creating a shopping street out of Bleecker. “No one went downtown for a pizza then. They thought it was dirty and diseased. Remember that in the 19th century, Jews and Italians were not considered white people.”

We’re shown a photo of a wide, empty passage lined with stables. It’s MacDougal Street. This is where Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney rented successively more spaces to pursue sculpture and get away from her husband. Convinced that Americans could produce good art if encouraged (not a popular belief), she bought directly from creators and amassed a collection.

Whitney lived with Juliana Force. Both women were married. There was no fuss about cohabitation. At one point Force offered Gertrude’s extensive collection to The Metropolitan Museum including funds for a building to house it. They laughed. She suggested her friend open her own museum. The first Whitney Museum was in the Village. (It’s now The Studio School.) Force was conscripted as Director.

Bessie Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe constituted another successful gay couple. The formidable women started keeping house together in the 1880s on Irving Place. Marbury was a well known theater agent and Broadway producer with clients like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. De Wolfe started as an actress, segued into scenic design, and became one of the foremost interior decorators of her day.

The ladies’ friend Stanford White recommended de Wolfe to the newly built Colony Club which he’d designed. “He then went off and got shot by Harry K. Thaw” over infamous Evelyn Nesbit, the girl in the swing and incidentally Thaw’s wife. De Wolfe lightened, brightened and decluttered, used fabric at windows and tiled floors bringing interiors into the 20th Century. Both women were celebrated in New York and Parisian society. They remained lovers even after de Wolfe entered into an arranged marriage with Sir Charles Mendl.

Lewis regales us with stories about The Heterodoxy (Feminist) Club (1912-1940) which was open to women of all stripes. The name stipulates a participant “not be orthodox in her opinion.” Among members were Agnes de Mille, Fannie Hurst, Crystal Eastman – married to the artist Max Eastman, and Ida Raugh. Eastman was responsible for the first workman’s comp and helped set up the ACLU. Rau was a co-founder of Provincetown Playhouse which set up in the Village about the same time Edna St. Vincent Millay opened The Cherry Lane Theater.

We hear about journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant (depicted in Warren Beatty’s film Reds) “Louise fell in love with Bolshevism and John Reed…when he went off on assignment, she jumped into bed with Eugene O’Neill…Reed returned and suggested the three should start taking meals together…Over 110 years ago marriage had all these permutations…gays owned shops …” Photos of the early 1900s Village scene include cellar restaurants with mismatched tableware, Mabel Dodge’s bisexual salon, Patchin Place where e. e. cummings would shout up to the reclusive Djuna Barnes “June, are you still there?!”

“What really brought us into the 20th Century was the subway. Isolation was a thing of the past. In the 1920s tours came through the Village gawking at bohemians, searching for authentic artists. Faux studios were staged strictly for the rubes. Gentrification followed. “We call it The Williamsburg effect…”

Barry Lewis can pack more into an hour than one would imagine possible. The presentation is illuminating and entertaining.

All quotes are Barry Lewis
Mr. Lewis Photo by Dianne Arndt

The Village: New York’s Bohemia
Barry Lewis- Architectural Historian, teaches at Cooper Union Forum, is the former co-host of the popular walking tour series on PBS.
New-York Historical Society  
170 Central Park West
March 22, 2018

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About Alix Cohen (1401 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.