By Glen Kalem-Habib and Francesco Medici
all rights reserved copyright 2022 ©
When Kahlil Gibran died on April 10, 1931, he had been living for almost twenty years in a one-room studio apartment on the third story of 51 West Tenth Street, NYC. During the latter part of his life, he’d often refer to his studio as ‘The Hermitage’ (al-Sawma‘ah, in Arabic), perhaps wanting to invoke feelings of solitude and refuge away from the sprawling city of New York.
Another reason might have been to arouse thoughts and memories of his birthplace in Bisharri, Mt Lebanon, a place he longed to go back to – his idyllic village is nestled in the UNESCO Heritage el-Wadi Qadisha (The Sacred Valley), where remnants of early Paganism intertwine with early Christian monastic life, still linger in the air – where hermetic living is still legendary to this day.
Yet, Gibran’s impassioned attempt to hermitize his apartment is one of the many great stories behind the building he once occupied and delivered in 1923, his masterpiece, The Prophet, and much more.
Known as ‘The Tenth Street Studio Building’ (1857-1856) or simply as ‘The Studios, ’ its walls tell a fascinating legacy that gave birth not only some of America’s most iconic art but a tenant list of influential artists that has perhaps never been rivalled in modern history. If walls could talk, this building would garner some delicious sound bites.
The ghosts of its past include Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (best known for designing Liberty Enlightening the World, commonly known as the Statue of Liberty). During Gibran’s time (1911-1931), his neighbors included the actress Sarah Bernhardt [she posed for KG, but he never lived there!], the painter Leonebel Jacobs, and the photographer George W. Harting to name a few.
Unfortunately, the building was demolished in 1956, giving way to the current apartment building we see today, providing new walls that house notable celebrities like Pretty Woman actress Julia Roberts.
Commissioned by James Boorman Johnston (1822-1887) and designed by Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), America’s first French-trained architect and an eminent figure in the history of American architecture – Hunt’s studio also doubled up as the first architectural school in the United States.
The Studios were designed for tenants to work, teach, exhibit, promote, and sell their work from their studios and the main gallery. Some of the more notable works include Designer/Painter Frederic Bartholdi (1834-1904), who exhibited his artistic model of the ‘Statue of liberty’ before it was built. John Lafarge’s (1832-1910) ‘Ascension Mural” - History Painter, Emanuel Leutze’s (1816-1868) “Washington Crossing the Delaware” - It also gave the sculptors Augustine Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) and Alexander Calder a birthplace.
When Gibran moved to New York City in April 1911, he had, just a year earlier, returned from Paris in 1910. Returning to Boston, where he had lived with his sister Marianna, he felt that he had outgrown this city, limiting his progress in painting and writing. He became “restless and indifferent to the point where he found Boston ‘stifling,’
Gradually tired of the label “Syrian genius,” Gibran wanted to trade the stability and barrenness of Boston for the excitement and fluidity of cosmopolitan New York.
His chance came when his patroness Mary Elizabeth Haskell (1873-1964), recognizing his growing frustration, laid plans for a studio to be found for him in New York, and in April 1911, he stayed at American writer Charlotte Teller’s (1876-1953) Greenwich Village apartment while she was on tour with her theatre group.
The first room he found was at 164 Waverly Place. On May 16, he moved to 28 West Ninth Street and took a room in an old house where his friend and colleague Ameen Rihani (1876-1940) lived. On September 22, 1911, he wrote to Mary Haskell:
I have taken a little, humble studio, dear Mary. It is on West 10th Street No. 51. The little studio has an atmosphere and a small balcony! The light is as good as I had in Paris, but it is not a skylight. The rent is only $20. Just think of it! I know you want me to have a better and larger studio, but this little one will be good enough for me now. The good Great Spirit will lead me to the right place when the time comes. I hope that in two weeks, I will be working in this great, powerful city…
On November 10, 1911, he could finally write to her: «The studio is lovely. I never felt more at home in any other place». Then, on June 2, 1912, he said to her: «Have I told you about my new studio chairs? Very beautiful. Roman curule back – wood painted black – and a dirty old cushion cover. For 14¢ a yard, I got a wonderful piece of silk – and covered them. I have four at a dollar and a half apiece». But in a few months, Gibran’s enthusiasm had already cooled down. In her journal dated November 9, 1912, Mary writes:
Still in 51 West 10th –I can’t find any good studio with a sunlight room or bath for less than forty dollars. He says that if you find a space that suits you, the rent is raised from thirty to forty dollars the moment you say you want it for a studio – and that any rooms built with a highlight may be called studios, so let for more. Artists vainly seek a place to paint – while dilettantes are the only ones who can afford studios in New York.
At the beginning of the following year, perhaps also thanks to «the good Great Spirit,» things seemed to take a turn for the better, and «the right place» turned out to be… the same place! In fact, on February 14, 1913, Gibran wrote to Mary:
There is a chance of my getting a fine, large studio here in this building. It is three times as large as mine and has north light, south light (sunshine) and skylight which are very cheerful and suitable for work. The rent is $45.00! I have been debating with myself for the last few days, and I do not know what to do! I shall have to spend some money to make the place look nice and clean – about $50.00. May I take it if they would let me have it? Just write a little note on one of your cards. I know you are busy.
Haskell’s positive reply was not long in coming. The following day she replied: «Go straight downstairs, upstairs, or wherever, and take it, beloved, before it escapes!». Gibran moved into the new studio about three months after. In a letter to Mary dated May 16, 1913, he expressed all his happiness: «I am no longer in a cage. I move about without touching the walls with my wings! I am physically a free man. It is a resurrection. I have air, sunshine, and space».
For the next 20-odd years, Gibran’s studio would become the foundation of some of his best work. Many of his Arabic books, articles, and English works were created from this address. Starting with The Madman, I n 1918 to The Wanderer and The Garden of the Prophet (posthumously published in 1932 and 1933).
And let’s not forget, within these same walls, Gibran, the (lifelong) painter, laid down the brush strokes that illuminated his best Watercolors, Oil Paintings, and those lesser-known Sketches of some of the most significant minds of his time he called friends or acquaintances. Carl G. Jung, Claude Debussy, Edmond Rostand, Sarah Bernhardt, Peppino Garibaldi, William B. Yates, Ruth St. Denis, and many others – i.e., these pencil portraits would later become known as ‘The Temple of Arts’ series.
It was within these same studio walls that he penned and crafted his many letters to other writers, artists, politicians, thinkers, social reformers, hundreds of admirers, and ordinary people. These same letters have become the holy grail for researchers and scholars of his world and works. This article is no different.
A room, or a house, always becomes like the one who dwells in it. Even the size of the room changes
with the size of one’s heart. How often has the scope of this studio changed during the past few years?
(Letter of KG to MEH, January 24, 1923)
In 1920, the building was purchased by a group of artists, Gibran included, to forestall commercial takeover. From that time forward, several New York City artists rented studio space in the building. For this reason, the relations among the owners were not always honest and relaxed. In this regard, at the end of December 1922, Gibran said to Mary the following:
I wish I had known more when we were buying this building. I could easily have borrowed $15,000, and then
I’d have had the controlling note. No one can own more than $10,000 worth of stock – and two of them own that much already. But they are stingy, the lot of them. They wouldn’t even have put toilets in if I hadn’t said, “If you don’t put them in, I’ll leave.” They don’t want me to leave because strange as it may seem, I’m an asset to the building. But the help downstairs is underpaid – way underpaid. They get, I believe, eighty a month and rooms in the basement. That’s for man and wife. No couple stays more than six months. They come in the first place because they can be together – in most areas, they can’t both work – but presently, they go where they can get three times as much, even if they have to work apart through the daytime. They can still be together at night. The House Committee hasn’t any imagination to see that a generous policy is a good business.
The other day one of them said to me, “Mr. Gibran, this isn’t any Christlike matter – this is just plain business.” And when one man couldn’t pay his rent for one month, they put a sign on his door. I was so angry, Mary, I went to the head of the Committee and said, “Either that sign goes, or I go – right now.” He said, “O yes, Mr. Gibran, certainly.” The artist came and thanked me afterwards with tears in his eyes. And another man – a married man – couldn’t pay for a while – and they were going to put a sign on his door – and his wife came to me in tears and cried all over the place – and I stopped them… Do you know what they call me? ‘The Doormat,’ because they all come and wipe it off on me.
The Tenth Street Studio Building was the first ever built in America exclusively for the use of painters and sculptors. But who were the other tenants and co-owners when Gibran lived there?
Thanks to 1921 Dau’s New York Blue Book, p. 451, we have a complete list of their names:
- WILLIAM KING AMSDEN (1859-1933) was an American Impressionist artist. In 1887 he traveled to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian. In 1890 he exhibited at the exclusive Paris Salon. Amsden returned to the U.S. in late 1890 and made his home in New York City. In 1896, he was adopted by a wealthy New York City art patron, Isabella M. King. His address was 51 West 10th Street. Amsden retained his studio and apartment there from 1910 until his death.
- WILLIAM SLATER BARKENTIN (1874-1962), an American artist, illustrator, and art restorer, attended the Yale Art school, the National Academy, and the Académie Julian in Paris.
- JAMES FRANCIS BROWN (1862-1935) was the founding president of the Buffalo Society of Artists (April 1891). He also was a member of the Salmagundi Club and the Society of Independent Artists. He studied at the National Academy of Design, the Académie Julian, and the Academy Colarossi. He exhibited at the Salmagundi Club, the National Academy of Design, the Society of Independent Artists, and the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
- GUSTAVE CIMIOTTI (1875-1969) was an NYC painter known for his Romanticism. His work was shown at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 and also at the controversial Armory Show of 1913 in New York City, a show that changed the course of art in the United States. He began his art education at the Art Students League in New York. From the League, he went to Paris in 1899 to the Académie Julian and the Delacluse Academy. He returned to New York and had a studio for 54 years in New York at 51 West 10th Street. He taught at the Berkshire Summer School of Art, the Montclair Museum School, the old Whitney Museum School, the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, and the Pratt Institute.
- JACQUES CHESNO (1886-1976) was born in Russia. His works were exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery (1919), the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (1923), the Society of Independent Artists (1918-23), the Salons of America (1934), and the National Academy of Design. He lived at the Studios Building with his wife, Frances.
- FREDERICK DIELMAN (1847-1935) was a German-American portrait and figure painter. He was born in Hanover, Germany, and was taken to the United States in early childhood. He opened a studio in New York City, where he worked at first as an illustrator of books and magazines and became a distinguished draughtsman and painter of genre pictures. He was one of the original members of the Society of American Artists, was made a National Academician in 1883, and was a member of the American Water Color Society, the New York Etching Club, and the Salmagundi Club. He was president of the Arts Federation of New York. In 1899, he was elected president of the National Academy of Design. In 1903, he became a professor of drawing at the College of the City of New York and, about the same time, was made director of the art schools at Cooper Union.
- WILLIAM DE LEFTWICH DODGE (1867-1935) was an American artist best known for his murals commissioned for both public and private buildings. In 1879,
his mother, Mary de Leftwich Dodge, an aspiring artist, moved her family to Europe. After living initially in Munich, they moved to Paris, where she worked on art.
Dodge later followed her example and became an artist. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and took first place in the examinations in 1881. He also looked at
the Académie Colarossi. After he and his family settled in New York, Dodge taught at the Art Students League of New York and Cooper Union. His work is held in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Academy of Design.
- DOUGLAS DUER (1887-1964) was a painter, illustrator, and poet in the United States. He worked for various newspapers, illustrated books, and created artwork for greeting cards.
- ULRIC HENRY ELLERHUSEN (1879-1957) was a German-American sculptor and teacher best known for his architectural sculpture. He was born in Waren, Mecklenburg, Germany, and came to the United States in 1894. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League of New York.
- WILL FREDERICK FOSTER (1883-1953) was an American painter and an amateur musician. In 1898 he enrolled at the Cincinnati Art Academy. In 1902 he moved to New York, where he kept the wolf from the door by painting theatrical scenery and backdrops for large department stores. Meanwhile, he studied at the New York School. In 1903 he sold his first illustration to “Life” Magazine. He began a successful career as a graphic artist, working for all the principal publications of the day and most of the major US magazines.
- KAHILL (sic) GIBRAN
- MAURICE FROMKES (1872-1931), born in Russia, was an artist brought to the U.S. as a young child. He lived and worked in New York and Spain. He was best known for his paintings of Spanish life. When living at the Studio Building, he painted a portrait of Kahlil Gibran titled The Syrian Poet, which was exhibited in 1921 at the Art Institute of Chicago (April 15-May 15) and published in the April 1932 issue of “The Syrian World,” precisely one year after Gibran’s death.
- ALICE HIRSH (1888-1935) was an American Impressionist and Modern painter. She first studied at the Art Student League of New York City and had established her studio in that city at 51 West 10th street by 1917.
- GEORGE WILLIAM HARTING (1877-1958) was an American artist and photographer. In 1908 he married Mary Frances Knowlton. He lived in New York City for about 20 years. He attended the Minneapolis Art School and was known for his skill at drawing. His illustrations appeared in many national magazines; his photographs appeared in “Camera Craft,” a highly influential photography publication. When living at the Studio Building, he took several pictures of Gibran.
- PERCY VAN EMAN IVORY (1883-1960), American painter and illustrator.
- HENRY DOWNING JACOBS (1877-1937), journalist, lexicographer and
- HENRY DOWNING JACOBS (1877-1937), journalist, lexicographer, and member of the editorial staff of the John C. Winston Company, publishers & his wife LEONEBEL UHLMAN JACOBS (1883-1967), an artist. Leonebel was a sculptor, portrait painter, and teacher. She spent her early years growing up in the Foreign Colony of Peking, China. She painted many members of the old court and visiting foreigners, one of the latter being Rabindranath Tagore. The portrait caught the attention of Sir Reginald Johnston, English tutor to the Emperor Pu-Yi, and consequently opened the doors of the Forbidden City to Jacobs. When the Chinese Christian General Feng-Yu-Hsing came to power, the Emperor and Empress fled to Tientsin under the protection of the Japanese. There, Jacobs was able to do several portraits of them. Her portraits have been exhibited at the Bernheim Jeanne Gallery in Paris, France, New York City, and Boston. She was a member of the National Association of Women Artists, the American Watercolor Society, the Pen and Brush Club, and the American Federation of Arts. Leonebel Jacobs is the author of a portrait of Gibran published in 1937 in her book Portraits of Thirty Authors.
- LU KNAPP (no info)
- ELEANOR W. KOTZ (?-?), artist, art restorer, and collector.
- LEO LENTELLI (1879-1961) was an Italian sculptor who immigrated to the United States. During his 52 years in the United States, he created works throughout the country, notably in New York and San Francisco. He also taught sculpture.
- PETER MEYERS (no info)
- GALEN PERRET (?-?), member of the Salmagundi Art Club, NYC.
- ROLAND HINTON PERRY (1870-1941) was an American sculptor and painter. He entered the École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, in 1890 at 19. At 21, he studied at the Académie Julian and Académie Delécluse and focused on sculpture, the medium where he would achieve the most artistic success.
- LOUIS SCHLESINGER (?-?), American painter and sculptor.
- CHARLES M. SHEAN (1852-1925), American artist.
- H. A. HAMMOND SMITH (?-?) was an American freelance restorer and artist based in New York.
- JOHN ADAMS TEN EYCK (1893-1932) was an American painter and etcher.
- CHARLES LESLIE THRASHER (1889-1936) was an American illustrator and a realist painter.
- VAN BLEECK TOMPKINS (no info)
- E. M. WARD (no info)
- CHARLES DATER WELDON (1844-1935) was an American illustrator and artist.
- GEORGE HENRY YEWELL (1830-1923) was an American painter and etcher. He rented a studio in the 10th Street Studio Building, which he kept at least until 1880. He returned after taking space elsewhere in the city, producing around 1895 and remaining there for the rest of his life.
- DAVID MAITLAND ARMSTRONG (1836-1918) was an American glass painter.