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Friday, October 16, 2009

Alchemist's Corner

Occasionally, demolition affords a rare opportunity to see something previously hidden from street view, such as fading vintage mural ads. The opportunity can also be limited in time, when new construction replaces old, as is the case here at 133-139 MacDougal Street, former home of Provincetown Playhouse (which will be become NYU law offices). A friend and neighbor called my attention to a small rooftop house now visible from MacDougal Street. There are a handful of these small rooftop dwellings in New York City, and I'm fascinated by them.

The small house is on the roof of 132 West 4th Street (photo right). The exquisite Greek Revival rowhouse was built in 1839 and was renovated in 1917 by Josephine Wright Chapman, one of the first successful female architects in America. The exterior was left largely intact, with the addition of casement windows to the parlor floor and a sloped studio window to the attic level where, in the same year, actor John Barrymore rented an apartment.

Barrymore did extensive work and interior decoration, which included papering the walls in gold and building a rooftop garden. In an amazing twist, playwright Paul Rudnick leased the "medieval duplex" apartment in 1987. Here is Rudnick's story from a New Yorker article in 2007:

The apartment in question consisted of the full, narrow top floor, and I was smitten. The theatrical plasterwork continued throughout, and there was a bay window with a window seat, flanked by portholes of thick, leaded Mediterranean-blue stained glass, all overlooking the leafy corner of Washington Square Park where fanatics play chess. There was a micro-kitchen, one tiny closet, and a cramped, nineteen-seventies-vintage Pepto-Bismol-pink tiled bathroom, but none of this mattered, thanks to a vaulted skylight, a fireplace, assorted archways, and a hidden, winding staircase. The stairs led to the roof, where I found a large deck. A sun-bleached oak ship’s wheel, six feet in diameter, leaned against the outer wall of a hobbit-scale cottage-—one room, with a beamed ceiling. The broker was chatty, and she mentioned that the apartment had once been the home of John Barrymore.

Learning of the history of the rooftop aerie, he was moved to write something set at the address, which eventually became I Hate Hamlet. Upon investigation, here is what Rudnick learned about Barrymore's rooftop abode:

As I settled in, I researched my new home. Barrymore had taken up residence in 1917, just before he began performing his legendary Hamlet uptown. His film career at that point was limited to locally shot silent movies, including an early take on “Moby-Dick,” which may have been the source of the ship’s wheel. Barrymore had remodelled the apartment as a Gothic retreat, christening it the Alchemist’s Corner. He had installed all the false beams, monastery-inspired ironwork, and stained glass, which made his lair resemble a stage set for an Agatha Christie whodunnit in summer stock. The rooftop had been his masterpiece, and had at one time included a garden, with cedar trees, a slate walkway, and a reflecting pool. Tons of soil had to be hoisted up by pulley, and eventually caused a collapse into the rooms below. Of Barrymore’s vision only the cottage remained; he’d likened it to a roost overlooking the spires of Paris.

Make a trip soon to MacDougal Street if you want to see the cottage at the Alchemist's Corner...

Note: Frank Jump has built a website around fading ads - a photographic project documenting vintage mural ads on building brickfaces in New York City spanning nearly a century. Many of these gems are also uncovered in the process of New York City construction with demolition of structures which had prohibited views of the signage. See his website here.


moe lauher said...

Recently I put a link to you on my page along with several other "Daily Photo" spots. The problem (not really) is that each day when I check you out I find myself roaming your site and all the other places you lead me to for a couple of hours. I love it. Keep up the good work.

Frank Jump said...

Brian - Thanks for the continued attention! Great story! Best, Frank H. Jump

girl in new york said...

What a fantastic find! I must make a trip to MacDougal to witness this for myself!

C.S. Bentley said...

In Gene Fowler's wonderful bio of John Barrymore, there is an entire chapter entitled, "The Alchemist's Corner", which describes in glorious detail Barrymore's decoration and engineering of the apartment. The title of the 1944 biography is "Goodnight Sweet Prince".