According to an article in the City Review (Edward Short, 11/16/07), Ashcan painter John Sloan didn’t give a damn when NYU tossed him out of the old Judson Hotel at 53 Washington Square South. He just packed up and moved to the Chelsea Hotel. Also, according to the article, he didn’t care that the old buildings around New York were being torn down and replaced with skyscrapers.
This rather seems like an odd position for Sloan to take, given his fixation on the mundane and seedy details of the city life of his day, and particularly since the one quote from him, as the author notes, can be read as expressing a pro-preservation sentiment.
But Sloan certainly did seem to take a fancy to what must have been the monstrosity of the day, 1 Fifth Avenue, as he photographed it under construction and later painted it, rising in its gargantuan splendor over the low-rise town houses surrounding it, dwarfing the Washington Arch. Sloan saw at the time what few could see then but what most of us can see now: that 1 Washington Square is a really nice building.
So perhaps there’s a lesson in this for those of us who bemoan the recent spate of development that’s replacing hundred-year-old, human-scale buildings with soaring, futuresque towers of glass. Maybe, but I doubt it. 1 Washington Square is a stately, solidly-built construction with fancy Art deco touches, while most of these glass houses are just pre-fab, cookie cutter boxes made of the cheapest materials possible. 1 Washington Square is a structure that the architects and the builders took pride in, rather than just sitting down and figuring out how to cut costs. If, in 80 years, preservationists are fighting to save these glass houses from demolition, we will know that the architecture of the day has sunk to a previously unimagined low.
And maybe Sloan wouldn’t give a damn about what’s happening at the Chelsea these days either; he could just pack up and move. Or, maybe not: back then there were places to move to; this time there’s no place left in the city that’s even remotely affordable. -- Ed Hamilton
Photo: One Fifth Avenue under Construction, 1927
Photograph, 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches
John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art Museum