Rediscovering a Village Steel Magnolia:
Ceramist Carol Janeway—Preservation Activist

By Victoria Jenssen, Art Historian

Every New York story is a real estate story. In Janeway’s case, she was born in Brooklyn in a Rugby Road mansion in 1913 to well-off, university-educated parents. She died in 1989 living in the Village in reduced circumstances, still defying her Milligan Place landlord’s evictions, which cited her hoardings as a fire hazard. The more upbeat versions say that she eloped at 18 with her Cornell classmate Eliot Janeway, that she smuggled art for a fundraiser, that she had been a fashion model abroad, that she had worked in Stalin’s Moscow, that she knew lots of celebrities, and that after returning to New York City in 1939 she embarked on her then well-publicized ceramics career. My 15 years of rediscovering Carol Janeway resulted in her lengthy illustrated art historical monograph: The Art of Carol Janeway (2022).

Janeway posed in 1943-44 for her friend Maya Deren resulting in three unique matted and signed photographs. Here she poses with plaster master of her portrait bust by her wartime lover, Russian-Parisian sculptor Ossip Zadkine. Silver gelatine print. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Purchased with funds contributed by Donor’s Trust, 2015, 2015-66-7. (ex-collection Carol Janeway)

She was known in the 1940s for the decorated tiles and ceramics she created in her Village studio(s) and sold uptown. Her wares were eagerly purchased by wealthy shoppers at Fifth Avenue’s Georg Jensen Inc gift emporium: tiled tabletops, tiled cocktail trays, tiled fireplace surrounds. Life magazine in 1945 ran her photographic essay, “Carol Janeway’s Tiles Have Fanciful Designs.” She was a photogenic, engaging woman with a New York society drawl. Downtown she dressed bohemian and suited up when heading uptown.

In March 1949 all hell broke loose. NYU announced its 203-year lease from Sailors Snug Harbor for the use of one historic block (including Washington Mews) on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. The community rallied to shame NYU into not razing the historic walk-ups facing the north side of the park, something NYU had just done to the park’s south side to build the NYU law school. Sailors Snug Harbor was open for business, leasing its acreage to developers and the evictions began. In April 1949, she proactively moved her studio from 46 East Eighth Street to the storefront at 113 West 10th Street. Indeed, by 1950 that Eighth Street block was razed.

In 1950 Carol Janeway retired at 37, citing lead poisoning from her trade. She could continue to dine out on improbable but true stories of her exploits, accused of namedropping. Her illustrated column, “Shopping the Village,” appeared in The Village Voice in its first years. AND she entered her new career: Village preservation activist.

Janeway joined the other enlightened tough broads noisily campaigning to save the Village—Ruth Wittenberg, Margot Gayle, Doris Diether, and Jane Jacobs whose 1950s writings decrying urban renewal culminated in her great book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Assemblyman Passannante’s former assistant, Ben Greene, had described them to me as the Village’s Steel Magnolias. They challenged all comers—NYU, the developers with the leases, and the city government itself—for their roles in the relentless demolition of whole neighborhoods and artists’ institutions. They foiled NYU’s dream of turning Washington Square Park into NYU’s campus quad. They squelched the 1950s plan of Robert Moses, the city’s commissioner-of-everything, to raze parts of the West Village to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Carol Janeway herself led the 1963 fight to stop demolition of the two linked mews off Sixth Avenue where she lived and worked—Patchin Place and Milligan Place. She enlisted fellow residents e.e. cummings and wife Marion Morehouse, Djuna Barnes, and Virgil Thompson. In the 1960s she did campaign and testify in favor of one demolition project: to raze the infamous New York Women’s House of Detention (1932-1974) at 10 Greenwich Avenue.

Victoria Jenssen’s monograph: The Art of Carol Janeway: A Tile & Ceramic Career with Georg Jensen Inc. and Ossip Zadkine in 1940s Manhattan. Foreword by Pat Kirkham. Friesen Press. 2022. 450 pp, 843 fig., index.

Incurious writers who lack these women’s stories give Jane Jacobs all the credit for their collective successes. Yes, we have Sixth Avenue’s Ruth Wittenberg Square. But what about the stylish and wry activist Doris Diether and the rented pig she paraded on a leash at one protest? Diether’s brimming archive will contain the founding documentation of Community Board II (CB2), one of NYC’s first community boards. The photographic archives of Village Voice’s Fred McDarrah can be combed for images of these women at protests.

So. I have started Janeway’s artistic rediscovery and am now campaigning for a Janeway exhibition in an NYC museum or gallery. Yet what nags me is all that unused documentation detailing these women’s Village activism. Will someone please rediscover and present all these Village Steel Magnolias’ roles in the story of the Village’s preservation? Let’s start with a Janeway plaque on the gateway of Milligan Place.

Now retired and living in Cape Breton, Victoria Jenssen graduated from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and its Conservation Center. An inveterate protester against NYU in the 1960s, she doubtless rubbed elbows unknowingly with Carol Janeway et al.