BY GABE HERMAN | Greenwich Village activists gathered outside the former West 9th Street home of muralist and decorative artist James Wall Finn on Oct. 7 to dedicate in his honor an historic plaque that Village Preservation furnished.
“Finn, though not a household name, had a remarkable career,” said Village Preservation Executive Director Andrew Berman during the ceremony outside 16 West 9th St.
Finn, who was born in New York in 1866 and lived until 1913, made works for J.J. Astor, Payne Whitney and the Hotel Knickerbocker. He also has murals at the Morgan Library in Murray Hill, the New Amsterdam Theatre, the Lyceum Theatre and the New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room in Midtown.
After graduating from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Finn moved back to New York in 1900 and into the building on West 9th Street, which is between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. He married and raised three kids in the building, where he lived until his death in 1913.
Berman noted that the building was originally a mid-19th century row house, and it underwent alterations in the 20th century and is now a townhouse. The building’s top windows above the cornice were added by Finn, which Berman said was a common addition for artists because they sought spaces with plenty of light.
Berman thanked the building’s co-owners, Nina and Rob Kaufelt, for allowing the plaque to be added to the building.
Nina Kaufelt said she appreciated the building’s history, and learning about previous tenants. “We get a big kick out of thinking about the soul of the building, and the souls of the building,” she said.
Kaufelt said that the ceremony was on the anniversary of Finn’s burial, which was at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn on Oct. 7, 1913. She also noted other famous former residents of the same Greenwich Village block, including Maurice Sendak and Anais Nin, and hoped plaques could eventually be installed for them as well.
Jennifer Tonkovich, curator at the Morgan Library & Museum, recalled studying in past years in the NYPL’s Rose Reading Room and seeing restoration work done on Finn’s mural there, which depicts a sky with rosy clouds.
“Those restoration campaigns literally brought Finn’s work into the light,” Tonkovich said.
Tonkovich also noted that Finn’s 1905 mural at the Morgan Library had been restored in recent years. Finn was not a fine art painter, she added, but a decorative painter who would adapt his work based on patrons’ desires.
“He is a somewhat elusive character,” Tonkovich said of Finn. She pointed out that little is known of how he decided on subjects, where he found models, or what preparatory work he did. He also had a team of assistants who contributed to his works, but whose names remain unknown.
Tonkovoch said at the ceremony that there are interesting artworks throughout the city by all kinds of artists, for people to discover and learn about. “We should all look around,” she said, “and wonder, Who made that? And not, Who was that made for?”