The bright colors and small figures of a Depression-era Midtown block

Eighth Avenue and 56th Street today looks nothing like it did when painter Lucille Blanch captured this otherwise ordinary block south of Columbus Circle 93 years ago.

Today, modern office buildings and apartment towers obscure the view of the Argonaut Building—the castle-like white structure that still stands down the block on Broadway and 57th Street. The enormous billboards are long gone, too.

The church below it, the flamboyant Broadway Tabernacle, met the wrecking ball in the 1970s. The tenement with the empty storefront next to the tire shop has also disappeared, replaced by a McDonald’s.

This stretch of West Midtown in the 1920s was known as the automobile showroom district, which explains the tire store and what look like car dealerships on the left-hand corner and in the middle of the block.

Lucile Blanch made a living as a painter, departing her Minnesota hometown to study at the Art Students League on West 57th Street on scholarship. She then became involved with the Fourteenth Street School, a group of artists with a social realist bent.

In 1930, she would have been 35 years old. Why she chose this corner to paint remains a mystery. But her depiction of the bright, colorful cityscape dwarfing the small, low-key residents might be saying something about the power of the urban environment over its residents caught in the toll of the Depression.

(Hat tip to Village Preservation’s Off the Grid blog, which included this painting recently in a post about unheralded female artists living and/or working South of Union Square.)

[Second image: Peter A. Juley/Wikipedia]

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24 Responses to “The bright colors and small figures of a Depression-era Midtown block”

  1. Benjamin P. Feldman Says:

    The Argonaut was the first HQ of General Motors in NYC; An Art Nouveau inscription thereof is affixed in or on a bulkhead structure on the roof, visible from the street on the western facade (and perhaps the eastern also) of the building

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Hi Ben, thanks for this background. I wish I knew about the roof inscription when I worked in this building years ago and made several trips to the roof during less busy moments during the workday. I would have taken some good pics!

  2. 40buick Says:

    Artists are historical geniuses!

    Sent from my iPad


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  3. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    We used to cut out of Haaren HS and go to West 57 St and visit all the auto dealers with their new cars on display. An hour or two spent wishing we could have those shiny cars. I remember the 1963 Bonneville one on the bigger boys from the neighborhood got that car, to the chagrin of all the other boys. One day the Bonneville driver came speeding came speeding up 2nd And & 7th, where we all hung out, until he crashed into the corner light pole. End of the Bonneville car and the show-off driver too!

  4. andrewalpern Says:

    The Argonaut Building had an earlier incarnation as the General Motors Building, and in fact the terra cotta letters spelling out the General Motors name were visible at the top of its eastern façade until only four or five years ago. GM moved to the huge then-new building on the block of 57/58/Broadway/Eighth which has recently been re-sheathed and renovated, before it moved to the tower Ed Stone designed for the site on Grand Army Plaza. But originally the Argonaut was two separate buildings, the Demarest on the corner and the Peerless midblock on Broadway. The ground floor held automobile showrooms, as the neighborhood was where the automobile industry was clustered. That was a logical outgrowth of it 19th century neighborhood of horse stables and the Tattersall’s horse auction arena. Christopher Gray wrote one of his columns on those two buildings.

    • Beth Says:

      I remember the cars in the lobby of what was the GM Building.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Andrew. It’s amazing to me that many years back I worked in this building and at the time knew so little about its wonderful backstory. I did always wonder why the service elevator was so large—I assume they used it originally to bring cars up and down floors.

  5. Greg Says:

    A very vivid and lively painting.

  6. Marcelle Hoffman Says:

    I might bring up a question about the brown empty tenement. The window count is the same as the existing building there now, color the same, window structure, building corbel. Yes the window trim is different on the painting. The McDonalds next door takes up more square feet frontage now than the old tire store, and the side walk seems smaller now compared to the sidewalk on the painting. Could the brown 5 story structure still exist in the same place now as was painted by Lucille Blanch?

  7. velovixen Says:

    Interestingly, the Coliseum continued the Circle’s history as an automotive center: It hosted the auto show (and the boat show–boats share much of the same technologies and designs) until it, too, met the wrecking ball.

    About the painting: Usually, when artists try to show people overshadowed by the city, they use the size and shapes of the buildings. But Blanch seems to be using the colors in that way: It makes the painting distinctive, but doesn’t brighten or highlight things (or people) in the way it might in, say, some Monets.

  8. Bob Says:

    This ( hi-res photo shows the northeast and southeast corners of 8th Avenue and 56th Street in great detail.

  9. Bob Says:

    This 1933 Wurts Bros. photo ( shows “West 56th Street and Broadway, northwest corner. Studebaker [automobile] dealer” Those are the buildings at the right (east) end of 56th Street, but shown looking west instead.

  10. Bob Says:

    I think the solution to the mystery of why she chose this corner to paint is that she and her husband at that time had a studio (#601) in the Van Dyck Studios building, 939 8th Avenue. Presumably she could paint this view from her 6th floor studio window.

    See “Arnold Blanch to Mrs. Force, Nov 28 – recto | Digital Culture”

  11. Bob Says:

    The website below has more about the history of the Van Dyck Studios building and its artists. One very well known occupant was the Mr. Pilates who invented the exercise system of the same name.

  12. Bob Says:

    “View from the Van Dyck Studios presents rear brownstone exteriors as seen from 939 Eighth Avenue, where Clark shared a studio with his father and then kept one of his own from 1906 to 1922. Established around 1889 and named after the Flemish Baroque painter Anthony van Dyck, the Van Dyck Building housed the Grand Opera Society of New York and the American School of Miniature Painting, along with studios for forty to fifty artists—primarily painters but also sculptors, musicians, and dancers. It stood around the corner from Carnegie Hall, which included 180 artists’ studios in its towers. Together, these two buildings formed one of the main art communities in late-nineteenth-century New York City. They set the stage for the development of such purpose-built artist residences as the West Sixty-seventh Street artists’ studios—home at various points to Gifford Beal (cat. 31), Ludwig Bemelmans, Norman Rockwell, and LeRoy Neiman—as well as the Rodin Studios, the Studio Building, and the Gainsborough Studios. “

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks to your research, Bob, I’m looking into a post on the Van Dyck Studios, an early incarnation of the studio buildings that went up in various parts of Manhattan, especially around 57th Street.

      The photo links you included answer Marcella’s question, and I found myself looking at them with a magnifying glass. What struck me most is the gas station pumps on the corner. Manhattan no longer has gas stations—at least not below 125th Street that I can think of.

  13. Andy Padre Says:

    TY everyone for the great comments! I came to NY in 96 and lived for 7 years at NE corner 57/10=Actors Fund which had a lot of drama, stories, housed a lot of history. I Studied at ASL, once at the studios at Carnegie. BTW there’s a gas station still open at 303 W 96th as of 3/2023.

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