Monday, September 14, 2009

Amster Yard 1970s

According to the writer of the mid-1970s Architectural Digest article about it, Amster Yard was rare if not unique for Midtown Manhattan because it was an L-shaped courtyard that had a number of brownstones surrounding and opening on to it. James Amster, beginning in 1946, reclaimed the buildings and restored them to a standard high enough for the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1964 to designate the complex a New York Landmark.

The Landmark Preservation Commission described Amster Yard as being "of special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City." However, this did not stop it being torn down earlier this century without the Commission's knowledge - the project manager of the development firm omitted to tell the Landmark Preservation Commission that he had deemed the buildings unsafe and irredeemable. As of 2008 it's been redeveloped and rebuilt.

Seemingly Amster Yard had been the site of a terminal stop of the Boston to New York stage coach it and became under Mr Amster's hand "a series of shops, business offices and apartments grouped around a landscaped courtyard with brick walls and slate walks." James Amster's office and residence were located at one end of the courtyard.

The article is short on description, three paragraphs only, and is really a list of the noted furnishings with which Mr Amster had appointed his apartment: "... a French iron mantle in the drawing room had been marbleized and was surmounted by an elegant Louis XVIth (sic) trumeau and delicately carved Venetian panels from the Cooper Hewitt mansion on Gramercy Park."

The undoubtedly wonderful objects the reader was asked to admire seem so of their time: antique Venetian consoles in original white and gilt finish; a painting by Utrillo; a Ming Dynasty porcelain Buddha; Japanese porcelain; Directoire bronze doré lamps; Charles Xth (sic) chairs and trumeau; a small American Empire sofa; Ming Dynasty paintings on silk; a chandelier made from an Italian fruit dish; a table set with French faience; a Greek flokati rug. Nothing that a dedicated Francophile and educated collector would not wish to own.

The most important thing about Amster Yard is who lived and socialized there. Billy Baldwin was persuaded to move in - James Amster laying down Parquet de Versailles to lure him - and made decorating history with his all-green living room, the color and sheen of a wet gardenia leaf. Isamo Noguchi lived there as did the fashion designer Norman Norell.

The above photo, from Billy Baldwin Remembers, taken in 1946 shows partygoers at Amster Yard. From left, Mrs Edna Woolman Chase, editor of Vogue; Mrs Benjamin Rogers; Woodson Taulbee; Albert Kornfeld, editor of House and Garden; Ruby Ross Wood having champagne poured by Billy Baldwin.

Below, also from Billy Baldwin Remembers, from left: James Amster; Marion Hall, Ruby Ross Wood; Billy Baldwin; William Pahlmann; Dorothy Draper and Nancy McClelland.

It is interesting to note that at this time interior decoration in America was dominated by skilled, shrewd and talented women and whereas I said the important thing to remember about Amster Yard is the people who lived there I did not wish to imply that James Amster was not one of them. He was one of the few men who made a name for himself as an important decorator, of equal standing with the Lady Decorators.

On a tangent, but nonetheless it comes to mind: how nowadays the title decorator is made to sound so debased - the turf battle between the licensed interior designers and architects has made the founders of our profession, the Lady Decorators, seem so insignificant and has made victims of us all. It is a pity that to define a profession we first have to demean what we were, but that is another post.


  1. Fascinating post! I recently came across an old book which had additional photos of Amster's home (or perhaps they are the same as you have shown here; can't remember...) If I were a designer, I would ask that people call me a decorator!

  2. I define myself as a decorator. I find designer too loose a term.