The Society of Illustrators is located at 128 East 63rd Street in a graceful, five-story townhouse on a quiet residential block on the Upper East Side. Originally a carriage house built in 1875 for William P. Read, a personal secretary for financier J.P. Morgan, it is near many of New York’s famed cultural institutions, Central Park, and the glittering shops of Madison Avenue.
As the automobile superceded the horse and the smoky railroad trench that ran north from Grand Central Station was covered over to become Park Avenue, 128 was bought by two brothers who lived there from 1908 to 1939. They converted the building into a residence and the stable area became a squash court.
In August 1939, the Society purchased the building for approximately $33,000, which is nearly $500,000 in today’s dollars. The funds had been realized by the sale in 1925 of the rights to the Illustrator Show skits to the Shubert Organization for their Broadway hit Artists and Models (see History of the Society).
Leo “Sport” Ward, an architect with social connections, oversaw renovations to the building in exchange for living quarters. Period photos reveal his living room to be a congenial space for entertaining friends such as Gloria Swanson and Joseph P. Kennedy, among others. A very large goldfish pond occupied much of what is now the third floor terrace.
Incredibly, the façade of the building from the street to the third floor was blue cobalt glass. The door, which would for years be painted red, was also blue. The membership considered opening a commercial restaurant on the ground floor to help defray expenses, but the plan was abandoned. In time the blue glass proved to be too expensive to maintain and was covered over.
In 1951, renovations to the third floor were complete, creating a lounge for the membership and a library in what is now the bar. The bar, graced by Norman Rockwell’s Dover Coach, was on the fourth floor where the library is now. In the early 1960s the lounge was reconfigured into the dining room and bar; little has changed other than décor.
The street-level gallery opened in the 1950s and in 1968 its first renovations had begun. At the time, former Society president Howard Munce had arranged to rent the Society as a location for the film, Loving, a film about an illustrator that starred George Segal and Eva Marie Saint. According to former Executive Director, Arpi Ermoyan, “in order to meet a filming deadline, Columbia Pictures jumped in and helped finish the renovation job at break-neck speed and had a tree planted at curbside outside the Society’s front door.” (The tree was lost to the MTA’s ax with the construction of the cross-town subway in the late 1970s).
Spearheaded by a campaign in 1981 by Society president John Witt to create the Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators, the lower level was converted into a second gallery. Funds had been raised by the membership and from a significant grant from the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency secured through the efforts of former president John Moodie. The galleries, open to the general public, greatly increased the space for year-round exhibitions, and a bookstore in the lower gallery offered posters and publications by the Society and others.
Twenty years later, with the support of the membership and president Judy Francis Zankel, the galleries were remodeled in anticipation of the Society’s centennial year and Founders’ Day on February 1, 2001. The red door, a remnant of which now hangs at the bar, was replaced by glass to more fully welcome the public.
Today, the building hosts not only many Society membership activities, but also lectures, drawing opportunities for professionals and students, art competitions, publications and gifts, beautiful and informative exhibitions, and more, all in service to the art of illustration as set out in 1901 by the first members of the Society of Illustrators in their Mission Statement.