An exhibition at NYU’s 80WSE gallery explores the wild artistic past of a storied building by the park.

historical image of Washington square park looking east.

Washington Square Park, Looking East. Photo c. 1925 by David Rosenfeld. Image courtesy of New York University archives.

In the late 1800s, work began on what was perhaps New York City’s first official bachelor pad. The building, commissioned by iron merchant Lucius Tuckerman, was to overlook Washington Square Park from the east, offering apartments and art studios to relatively well-off single men. While the scenario may sound tame by today’s standards, bachelors at the time had an awful reputation—and if one bachelor was bad, then a bunch of them together was much worse. As an 1879 New York Times article about the new building’s design explained: “The bachelor is looked upon by some men and all women as a mistake in the scheme of creation, and probably three-fourths of his fellow beings would vote for his immediate elimination by the noose—Hymen’s or the hangman’s.”

Tuckerman, however, felt comfortable enough making money off of bachelors—and his work as vice president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art indicated at least some sympathy for the plight of artists—so he commissioned architects McKim, Mead & Bigelow to realize his vision at what is now 80 Washington Square Park East. The building quickly attracted men who had limited residential options due to stigma, and became an artistic haven, with well-known painters such as Winslow Homer, John LaFarge, J. Alden Weir, and Albert Ryder as tenants. A name for the building was soon cemented: the Benedick, in honor of the committed bachelor in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. “Shall I never see a bachelor of three-score again?” wonders Benedick aloud when speaking to his friend Claudio (before telling Claudio that getting married would amount to “[thrusting his] neck into a yoke”).

 

historical photos of bachelors at a party

Artist's Party with John Singer Sargent and others. Images from the Otto Bacher papers, 1873-1938. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Bacher was known to associate with artists that frequented the Benedick and it's likely Bacher also socialized in the building.

At the center of the Benedick’s new social scene was the Sewer Club, a group formed in 1888 by architect Stanford White and a handful of other men. A few months after McKim, Mead & Bigelow designed the building, White replaced Bigelow at the firm, and then rented a room at the Benedick. Over the next couple of years, White became known for co-hosting debauched parties on behalf of the Sewer, and his apartment’s stunning park view is believed to have informed one of his most famous designs: the Washington Square Arch, whose construction was completed in 1892.

Ultimately, the Benedick’s reign as a hub for bachelors was fleeting. (Even Shakespeare’s Benedick couples up in the end.) The building was sold by Tuckerman’s heirs in 1899 and became devoid of artists by 1905. But the Benedick’s eventual sale to NYU in 1925 would, many decades later, bring art back to the space—front and center. Not long after buying the Benedick, NYU converted it into the Students Building—which housed mostly administrative offices—and for a period, covered the exterior in a limestone wash. Then, in 1974, 80WSE opened on the ground floor to showcase the work of Steinhardt students, and the gallery has been at the forefront of contemporary art since. In 1987, NYU restored the building’s original red brick exterior, moving 80WSE one step closer to its original essence.

 

historical photo of students in front of 80 Washington Square East

The Students' Building at 80 Washington Square East, which stood from 1932-1966, served as a gathering space for students. c. 1945, Education Violet Yearbook.

So it’s fitting that 80WSE’s current exhibition, Benedick, or Else—on view through Sunday, Feb. 17—lives on the ground floor of the very space it ponders. A collaboration between artist Dora Budor and scenographer Andromache Chalfant, Benedick, or Else explores the evolution of the edifice in considering the way that city buildings change over time, as well as the role that institutions like NYU play in that process. The abstract exhibition consists of a series of rooms in various stages of construction, evoking the Benedick’s distinct metamorphoses, along with a theatrical script in which personified structures replace actors.

Although the Benedick’s heyday was short-lived, the building’s legacy endures in apocryphal tales. In The Life and Works of Winslow Homer (1911), his book about the painter, William Howe Downes relays a second-hand story about a party at the Benedick, where a dozen artists talked and laughed while Homer raced to finish a drawing on deadline, urging a partygoer to fill his pipe for him. Hints of that kind of raucous human presence reveal themselves in Benedick, or Else. The smell of tobacco permeates one of the exhibition’s rooms, a reminder that the space has always belonged to living, breathing people—that it has always been, and continues to be, a place of creation.

Corner of Washington Square East and West 4th Street c.1930

Corner of Washington Square East and West 4th Street c.1930. Image courtesy of New York University archives.

Benedick, or Else

is on display at 80WSE through February 17, 2019.