Art Studios Where Whitney Museum Was Born Will Admit Visitors

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The studio, formerly a hayloft, created for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in the late 1910s and early '20s by Robert Winthrop Chanler. Beginning on June 3, a limited number of visitors will be able to take free tours. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

The New York of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's day did not respect female artists, did not prize contemporary artists and did not appreciate American artists.

Mrs. Whitney set out to change all that, working out of a crazy warren of studios and salons cobbled together a century ago from abutting townhouses and carriage houses on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village.

Her eccentric compound was the birthplace of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. The museum had its headquarters there until 1954. Since 1967, the interlocked buildings have housed the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.

This would be an artistic landmark of the first order if the public were admitted on a regular basis.

Mark your calendar.

Beginning June 3, a limited number of visitors will be able to take free, 45-minute tours of Mrs. Whitney's studios.

The tours have been made possible in part by a $30,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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Bas-relief ceiling figures carved by Mr. Chanler, who also designed and created the fireplace. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

"We think this place is a treasure," Stephanie K. Meeks, the president and chief executive of the trust, said, "and one that deserves more recognition for its history and more of an opportunity for the public to engage with it."

Ms. Meeks spoke while glancing around the mystically hallucinogenic studio created for Mrs. Whitney in the late 1910s and early '20s by Robert Winthrop Chanler, an artist with an Astor pedigree whose legacy is only now being rediscovered.

In this delirious space, formerly a hayloft, a 20-foot-tall fireplace seems to be consumed by sinuous tongues of bronze and plaster flames. They lick a ceiling awash with bas-relief figures of dragons, snakes and cephal opods, presided over by a demonically radiant sun — William Blake in three dimensions. Compounding the madness, there were once seven stained-glass windows, four of which flanked the hayloft doors.

"Perhaps all of these colors and designs proved overwhelming to Mrs. Whitney's own creativity," said Alicia J. D. Cooper, the tour manager and development associate at the New York Studio School. She and Thibault Dapoigny, a first-year student, offered a dry run of the studio tour last week to Ms. Meeks, who was visiting from Washington.

Whatever the reason, Mrs. Whitney moved into a larger ground-floor studio, with a rear entrance onto the artists' enclave of Macdougal Alley. There, she worked on sculptures like the Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial for Mitchel Square in uptown Manhattan and "S pirit of Flight" for the 1939-40 World's Fair.

In a 1919 interview with The New York Times ("Poor Little Rich Girl and Her Art / Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney's Struggles to Be Taken Seriously as a Sculptor Without Having Starved in a Garret"), Mrs. Whitney spoke frankly of the prejudice she faced:

"Let a woman who does not have to work for her livelihood take a studio to do the work in which she is most intensely interested and she is greeted by a chorus of horror-stricken voices, a knowing lifting of the eyebrows, or a twist of the mouth that is equally expressive. And much more condemnatory."

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Hayloft doors to Mrs. Whitney's studio face Macdougal Alley. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Unfazed, and wealthy, Mrs. Whitney not only made art on West Eighth Street, she also collected and exhibited it.

The Whitney Studio opened in 1914. In 1929, Mrs. Whitney empowered her assistant, Juliana Reiser Force, to offer more than 500 artworks to Edward Robinson, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He declined the donation.

So Mrs. Whitney and Mrs. Force opened their own museum in 1931. (Today, the Met occupies the former home of the Whitney on Madison Avenue.)

Last year, the incised Whitney Museum name was briefly revealed again on the West Eighth Street building, near Fifth Avenue. The Studio School quickly covered it over again with its own sign, reflecting the tension that goes along with the building's dual identity as a contemporary institution and a historic landmark.

The grant from the National Trust was used to renovate the studio designed by Mr. Chanler. Floors, baseboards, stairs, handrails and walls were refurbished, and a structural wooden floor beam was reinforced. This work has made it possible to open the space to more visitors.

Graham Nickson, the dean of the school, said $30,000 would otherwise have been a high hurdle for the school to clear. "We're a nonprofit," he said. "We have to raise a tremendous amount of money just to do what we do on a regular basis."

And ye t the dean, whose office connects to the Chanler studio by a secret stairway worthy of medieval Italy, is happy to embrace the legacy.

"We refer to the good ghosts that inhabit this building," Mr. Nickson said. "There can be wonderful new buildings, but it takes time for them to get good ghosts."

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