How 57th Street Became the Center of the Art World

In January 1912, when the New York Times announced that the Durand-Ruel Galleries had bought the private residence at 12 East 57th Street with the intent of tearing it down and replacing it with an eight-story gallery and residence, the newspaper called it "the first big business structure to be erected in the block."* In doing so, the gallery boldly moved from its location in what was then New York's art center -- the blocks surrounding the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street -- to an affluent residential neighborhood. The pioneering Parisian gallery that first opened in New York in 1887, Durand-Ruel was known for its exhibitions of the French Impressionists and as an important source for artwork for a new breed of American collectors.

It turns out that Durand-Ruel was on to something. Fifth Avenue had maintained its reputation as an elegant boulevard of mansions, churches, and clubs; since 1907, any development was rigorously overseen by the Fifth Avenue Association which had strict planning codes and regulations. Absent the elevated or “El” trains, billboards, parking lots, and even funeral homes, the avenue attracted what were known as “smart” businesses -- Brooks Brothers, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Tiffany Studios -- that catered to an elite clientele. With the glamorous Plaza Hotel anchoring the north end of the avenue at 58th Street, it was only a matter of time before businesses recognized the appeal of 57th Street's wide swath through this upscale neighborhood. In the post-World War I development of the area north of Grand Central Terminal, other galleries soon followed Durand-Ruel's example and relocated to 57th Street.

Undoubtedly a turning point for the neighborhood was the 1919 sale of the formidable Stevens-Whitney mansion that occupied the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. In its place, the Heckscher Building, a twenty-six-story residential and commercial building designed with gallery and exhibition spaces in mind, was completed in 1922 (image below). There the Museum of Modern Art rented rooms where it held its exhibitions on the twelfth floor when it first opened in November 1929.

Likewise, the American Art Association, one of the nation's leading auction houses at the time, combined several lots on the east side of Madison Avenue between 56th and 57th Street in order to construct its new state-of-the-art headquarters. Prior to the building's completion in November 1922, the Association frequently held important sales in the grand ballroom of the Plaza.  

In early 1924, Knoedler & Co. moved into its new galleries next door to Durand-Ruel at 14 East 57th Street. They were soon joined by Joseph Brummer whose gallery was located in a townhouse at 43 East 57th Street. Two years later, Brummer moved further west and the F. Valentine Dudensing Gallery opened in the same rooms Brummer had rented on the 2nd floor. With real estate values skyrocketing, in April 1928 it was announced that the Central Presbyterian Church at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue would be torn down and replaced by the forty-story Fuller Building. The lower floors of the building were designed to house galleries and, until the allure of larger spaces and lower rents in the Chelsea neighborhood drew them away, the Fuller Building remained a center for many of the leading galleries for over seven decades. In fact, Pierre Matisse, Dudensing’s original partner in the Valentine Gallery, ran his eponymous gallery there for fifty-eight years.

The Valentine Gallery occupied four different buildings on east 57th Street during its two decades of operation. In addition to 43 East 57th Street, the gallery was located in townhouses at numbers 69, 16, and 55, all of which have since been replaced by much larger office and commercial buildings.

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 *"The Real Estate Field," (January 18, 1912), 19.

[Bird's eye view looking south from Fifth Avenue at 58th Street at the 26-story Heckscher Building (c. October 1921), southwest corner of Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, with Vanderbilt Mansion (since replaced by Bergdorf Goodman) in foreground]. 1921. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/2004673286/>.

[Bird's eye view looking south from Fifth Avenue at 58th Street at the 26-story Heckscher Building (c. October 1921), southwest corner of Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, with Vanderbilt Mansion (since replaced by Bergdorf Goodman) in foreground]. 1921. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/2004673286/>.