The visionary artist with his own museum in a Riverside Drive Art Deco masterpiece

St. Petersburg-born Nicolas Roerich was many things: an archeologist, philosopher, emigre due to the Russian Revolution, and Nobel Prize nominee many times over.

Nicholas Roerich

But it was his talent as a painter of colorful natural and mystical scenes that brought him to the United States in 1920, when a national tour of 400 of his works launched at the Kingore Gallery in New York City in December of that year.

After the tour and between treks to the Himalayas and India, the charismatic Roerich took up residence in 1920s Manhattan, working out of a 19th century mansion at 310 Riverside Drive, at 103rd Street. With financial help from a Wall Street moneyman and patron named Louis Horch, he founded the Master Institute of United Arts, a school that offered lectures by top painters like George Bellows.

The Master Apartments, Riverside Drive

The mansion also housed his own personal museum, where fans could buy copies of his art and writings and debate the merits of his talent. “Talk to his disciples and one encounters almost incoherent adoration,” wrote the Brooklyn Times Union in 1929. “That seems to be the precise word for it. Adoration. Artists are divided in their opinion of his talent.”

Roerich the artist and mystic fascinated Jazz Age New York, and his interest in Eastern philosophies found an eager audience. So when Horch proposed the idea of demolishing the old mansion and building a modern apartment tower on still fashionable Riverside Drive that would devote its lower floors to Roerich’s school, studio, and museum, the two men struck a deal.

The Master Apartments, soon after the building was completed

The Master Apartments, also known as the Master Building, (above) made its debut in 1929. It was the tallest building on Riverside Drive, which was transforming from a street of single-family and row house mansions to an avenue of elegant and more restrained apartment houses.

This 29-floor Art Deco masterpiece was designed by Harvey Wiley Corbett, who himself belonged to the Roerich Society. With more than 300 income-generating apartments plus a theater, “the building’s distinctive Art Deco detailing, terraced setbacks, and stupa are easily identified from Riverside Park and the Henry Hudson Parkway,” states the building’s own website. “Its corner windows are reputed to be the first in Manhattan.”

“Guests From Overseas,” 1901

According to Anthony Robbins in New York Art Deco: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture, the Master Apartments “rise to a single, tapered pinnacle, more like a Midtown skyscraper…. [Corbett’s] design relies on geometric patterns, angles, and colors.”

After Wall Street collapsed in 1929, however, fortunes quickly changed for Roerich and his Art Deco tower. “Roerich’s star in America plummeted,” wrote John Strausbaugh in the Observer in 2014. “The Master Building was hit hard by the Depression and went into receivership. Horch renounced Roerich and sued for $200,000 in unpaid loans. The IRS went after Roerich for tax fraud. By 1938 Horch had control of the skyscraper, shoved Roerich’s paintings in the basement and ousted his followers.”

The Roerich Museum was then replaced by the Riverside Museum, which was devoted to contemporary art until the 1970s, when the collection was absorbed by Brandeis University. A new space for Roerich’s artwork was found in 1949 in a brownstone at 319 West 107th Street. Roerich passed away in 1947, but the Nicholas Roerich Museum still exhibits his works today and may be the only museum in New York devoted to one artist.

The Master Apartments went co-op in 1988. The many studio apartments have been combined into larger units, the lobby has been restored, and it remains the tallest building with the most recognizable Art Deco design touches on Riverside Drive.

Cornerstone, with the R and M

Two remnants of its earlier incarnations remain: a cornerstone bearing the initials R and M (for Roerich Museum, it seems) and the words “Riverside Museum” in small letters above the entrance.

Come see the Master Apartments and other mansions and monuments on Ephemeral New York’s Riverside Drive walking tour June 5 and June 19!

[Third photo: NYPL; fifth photo: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.348]

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12 Responses to “The visionary artist with his own museum in a Riverside Drive Art Deco masterpiece”

  1. beth Says:

    how cool

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    He’s an interesting guy—and that’s a lovely apartment house!

  3. Joe Mobilia Says:

    The piece makes passing reference to there being a theatre in the building. For many years that was the home of Equity Library Theatre – a fantastic, Tony award winning, showcase for actors, directors and designers.

  4. Sally F Says:

    Love this post, and am excited for the walking tour!
    (Note- I think there is an extra word “Roerich” near the end of the third paragraph – “patron named Louis Horch Roerich)”

  5. Greg Says:

    “With financial help from a Wall Street moneyman and patron named Louis Horch Roerich”

    Did Horch take Roerich’s name at one point, or is this just a typo?

    Interesting profile, I’m familiar with Roerich but not this building.

  6. Roosevelt Island Historical Society » Wednesday, May 18, 2022 – A BUILDING THAT FULFILLED ONE MAN’S DREAM, FOR A BRIEF TIME Says:

    […] filed under Music, art, theater. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  7. velovixen Says:

    This post is so interesting. It makes me think the party scene in Chapter 3 of “The Great Gatsby,” which sums up the age and its talented, charismatic and eccentric personalities, all of which fueled its vibrancy and sowed the seeds of its downfall. This post gives us some of that same sense–and shows how the monuments built to the visions or simply wealth of its most famous people come to mean, and be, something very different in our time.

    I’ve gone by the building any number of times. It’s lovely. I have to wonder, though, whether Roerich’s reputation will live on because of his work or his persona.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That’s a good question. I lean more toward his persona; it seems that he captivated people in the 1920s, and he continues to captivate today.

  8. Roosevelt Island Historical Society » Wednesday, June 1, 2022 – A TREASURY OF GLASS THAT WAS COLLECTED OVER DECADES Says:

    […] am and is filed under Music, art, theater. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  9. Olga Verasen Says:

    I wish you learn more.

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