78_ROW.jpg (26802 bytes) New York Architecture Images-Upper West Side



Frederick B. White 


301-307 West 78th Street




Dutch Revival









Built on land owned by the Astors, these modestly-scaled red brick row houses reflect the humble, early days of the Upper West Side, before recovery from the early 1880s depression enabled the construction of more elaborate dwellings. The elegant but modest facades of these idiosyncratic Dutch Revival style row houses reflects their status as slightly second-rate middle-class housing.

121-131 West 78th Street, Between Columbus and Amsterdam 
Avenues; A Row of 1886 Houses That Hold a Colorful Mystery 
Published: May 25, 2003, Sunday 

THE Spanish-born architect Rafael Guastavino brought a Moorish 
influence to New York in his 1886 row of houses at 121-131 West 78th 
Street. Sometime before 1968 all six houses mysteriously got a uniform 
paint job of red and white, perhaps sparking the rainbow of colors -- 
yellow, green, white, blue, cream, brown -- that now decorate the 
block's homes. 
Now the owners of 129 East 78th, one of the houses widely known as the 
''red and whites,'' plan to restore their facade by removing the red 
and white to expose the original colors. But the question is, what's 

Guastavino, who was born in Valencia in 1842, came to New York in 1881 
from Barcelona with a knowledge of fireproof vaulted clay-tile 
construction, which could span relatively large distances with much 
less weight than timber or iron beams. Within a decade he was supplying 
the system to other architects, who liked the lightweight and simple 
building technique. 

He founded a company whose distinctive method, using vaults of clay 
tile set in mortar, soon became widespread and is still visible in 
places like the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal, the Boston Public 
Library and the great public market space under the Queensboro Bridge, 
which was recently restored. But in the 1880's, before he achieved 
fame, he worked as an architect, with only minor success. 

In 1885, The Real Estate Record and Guide reported that Guastavino was 
designing a row of houses at 121-131 West 78th, between Columbus and 
Amsterdam Avenues, for the French-born developer Bernard S. Levy. The 
Record and Guide predicted that ''they will be novel in their 
architecture, which will be a combination of Moorish and Renaissance.'' 

The row, completed in 1886, is a kaleidoscope of Moorish elements in 
brick, with multiple-centered arches, intricate banding and unusual 
projecting cornices. Guastavino also designed a row across the street, 
at 118-134 West 78th, but in brownstone. 

Levy lived at No. 121; the 1900 census records that Levy, 60, was in 
residence there with his wife, Henrietta, three daughters and three 

From the houses' earliest days, they had separate owners. In 1908, the 
year Guastavino died, Charles E. Harrington, a journalist, made minor 
alterations to No. 129; they perhaps included the Beaux Arts style iron 
door at the front, a typical updating of the period. 

By the 1920's residents were taking in boarders. The 1925 census shows 
No. 127 occupied by a singer, Beattie Le Grange, 30 -- listed as the 
head of household -- along with two musicians, another singer and two 
dancers, Carolyn Johnson and Evelyn Chambers, both 17. All the 
residents were women. 

In 1968, the Guastavino scholar George R. Collins noted the ''gay and 
varicolored manner'' of the exterior paint. Information about exterior 
painting of brick houses of the Victorian period in New York is 
generally scant, and these facades pose certain problems of 

Guastavino's other Victorian projects, including several with brick 
facades similar to this row, are known to have been unpainted. Would he 
have painted Nos. 121-131 originally? If he did, was it to mitigate 
some unusual condition that is now concealed? And even if he did, is it 
realistic to expect that more than a century of later owners regularly 
ratified his paint designs? 

But is it any more realistic to expect that six separate owners 
simultaneously carried out such a program at a later date, especially 
when the houses were in decline? Neither explanation seems credible, 
and yet the paint is there. 

A series of black and white photographs at the Municipal Archives, 
taken for tax purposes around 1940, do not conclusively indicate that 
the row was painted at that time. The stone trim, now painted white, 
does seems brighter than a normal stone surface, but that condition 
might have been caused by shadow. 

There are some signs of peeling paint in the photos on the upper 
portions of No. 125, where some orange brick now shows through in 
spots, but those signs might have been caused by damage to the film 
negative. There appears to be some paint, but the color contrast is not 
nearly so pronounced as it is now, a deep red and bright white. 

Among current residents of the block who lived there in the 1960's, 
there is even some disagreement about whether Nos. 121-131 were covered 
in red and white in that decade. But one resident, who said she had 
arrived on the block in the 1940's, said that the houses had definitely 
been painted when she first moved in, and that she would have recalled 
such an unusual painting campaign if it had occurred later. 

Guastavino's ''red and whites'' seem to have had an effect, although 
perhaps only subliminal, on the owners of the other houses on the 
block, which is considerably more colorful than the usual street of row 

Martha Stamm Connell, who renovated about a half dozen houses on the 
block in the 1960's, played an important role in the color scheme of 
the other homes. Ms. Connell recalled that she first saw the block 
''through rose-colored glasses'' and soon converted old houses, 
painting them mustard yellow, charcoal gray with white trim, lemon 
yellow with white trim, and khaki green. Many had already been painted, 
but they were soiled and dull. 

IN 1972, Ms. Connell co-wrote, with Deirdre Stanforth, ''Buying and 
Renovating a House in the City,'' which was published by Knopf. 

Sometime in the last two decades the combined houses at Nos. 105-109 
have been repainted a brilliant blue and cream, like a giant piece of 
Wedgwood. Other homes have been redone in steely blue, lavender and 
other colors. 

Most of the original interiors of the Guastavino houses at Nos. 121-131 
have long since disappeared, but a few survive, like the apartment of 
Benjamin Alfonsi, an actor and screenwriter who has the front parlor 
floor studio at No. 127. His fireplace, although covered in paint, has 
an intricate series of arches, twisted small columns, brown and gold 
tile and cherub figures. The doors in the hallway have a cross-hatched 
pattern with Moorish overtones. 

The house of Brian and Jeanne Kerwin, at No. 129, is the most intact in 
the row. They are finishing a multiyear interior restoration. Theirs is 
the house with the Beaux-Arts-style iron door. Perhaps their Belle 
Epoque fireplace, with bronze cresting, female nudes and intricate 
raised decoration, was installed at the same time. They also have much 
of the original Guastavino detailing: brilliant leaded glass transoms, 
perforated Moorish-style panels, cross-hatching patterns on the doors 
and a stair baluster with intricate fretwork. 

Ms. Kerwin said that she and her husband would like to remove the red 
and white paint as soon as money permits, perhaps by the end of the 
year. Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation 
Commission -- the row is part of the Central Park West Historic 
District -- said that the commission encourages owners to seek permits 
to remove later accretions on historic buildings. 

But what if the colors date back to 1886? Sophisticated testing may 
give the answer -- or then again it may not, leaving an unanswered but 
colorful question in the New York streetscape. 

Published: 05 - 25 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 11 , Column 
1 , Page 5 

Copyright New York Times.