The perfect rhythm of adjacent brownstones forming one solid street facade define the character of 19th-century New York. These streets posses the romantic quality of the old New York and attract us with their stately yet reserved uniform presence.
By the end of 19th century, however, their uniformity was loosing its charm and to some seemed just boring. Edith Wharton, the prominent writer and member of one of New York’s old families, famously loathed them for being oppressively unimaginative.
The block of 19th Street between Irving Place and the 3rd Avenue was no exception. The brownstones on the block, being built in the 1840s and ’50s, by the end of the 19th century were slowly deteriorating. Their fate changed unexpectedly in 1908 when Frederick Sterner, an English-born architect, bought one of them at #139. But instead of rebuilding and restoring it, he had it entirely remodeled! The facade was covered with a coat of light-colored stucco, with shutters, colored tiles, and other decorative elements giving the house light and an informal, custom look— quite a departure from the concept of uniform-looking brownstones. The effect was astounding, as the house truly shone among the dark, aging townhouses. Sterner bought several more houses and gave them a similar treatment. The idea attracted other home owners, and the block rapidly transformed into a unique collection of individually designed homes with a light Mediterranean feel. The hand-made look reflected the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement popular in Europe at the time, which championed artisan individual design.
The block, a success with critics, was dubbed ”Block Beautiful” in American Homes and Gardens in 1914. A few years earlier, the magazine House Beautiful had given high marks to Sterner’s idea, noting that a “remodeled [house] can be made so fascinating.”
Artistically designed houses attracted quite a few artists, such as painter George Bellows (#146), actresses Lillian Gish and Ethel Barrymore (both in #132), and many others. The block had apparently became something of an artist commune in the 1920s, gaining notoriety for its wild parties attended by the likes of Emma Goldman, John Reed, and Eugene O’Neill.
Ethel Barrymore, the “First Lady of the American Theatre” whose brilliant career spanned six decades, lamented about one of these bohemian gatherings, “I went there in the evening a young girl and came away in the morning an old woman.”
New York’s brownstone blocks, surviving the test of time, remain just as picturesque as they were two centuries ago. “Block Beautiful”—19th Street between Irving Place and 3rd Avenue—is not simply beautiful, but completely unique.