What’s New in our Making A Museum Exhibit? St. Denis Building Directory

The St. Denis Building, at 80 East 11th Street at Broadway in Manhattan, is a case study of the changing city. Built in 1853 by renowned architect James Renwick Jr., it was the first building in New York to feature terracotta sculpted exterior decoration. At that time, the neighborhood was a fashionable shopping district, and the St. Denis was a grand hotel which drew many notable guests: Abraham Lincoln, P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, and Sarah Bernhardt among them. The gentleman’s parlor on the second floor saw Alexander Graham Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone in New York.

By 1917, the neighborhood had fallen out of fashion. The building was sold and converted to office space with ground floor retail. The renovations removed Renwick’s terracotta detailing, rendering it ineligible for historic preservation a century later.

St. Denis’ office tenants were just as notable as its hotel guests. From the 1920s to the 1950s, many of its tenants were leftist newspapers and workers’ organizations: The Workers Party of America, the American Negro Labor Congress, and the W.E.B. Du Bois-chaired Peace Information Center were among the many groups headquartered there. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, the last holdout of this generation of tenants, appears on our Directory board (Room 341). Marcel Duchamp kept a secret, unlisted studio in Room 403, and his deliberately posthumous final work, Étant Donnés, was installed there.

In 2016, the St. Denis was sold to developers with plans to demolish the building. The last tenants left in 2018, but remain listed on the historic Directory on view at the Reliquary. The variety and number of businesses listed are a prime example of Jane Jacobs’ maxim that new ideas need old buildings. The comparatively cheap rents, older fixtures, and smaller office spaces in the St. Denis allowed many solo therapeutic practitioners to see low-income patients and small businesses to get an affordable start.

The current plans for the St. Denis space are for a 12-story glass wall office building with a stacked box design. It is one of a cluster of new commercial developments in the neighborhood seeking to expand Flatiron’s “Silicon Alley” further down Broadway.

The St. Denis directory came to the City Reliquary as the generous donation of Richard Signorelli, a 15-year tenant of the building and one of the last to depart.

We highly recommend this excellent article about the history and vibrant life of the St. Denis by Jeremiah Moss in the New York Review of Books.

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