Artist Recreates a Franklin Street Scene of 90 Years Ago

Roxie Munro in her Long Island City studio puts the finishing touches on her painting of a block of Franklin Street, between Church Street and West Broadway, from another era. Photo: April Koral/Tribeca Trib

Nov. 12, 2015

For artist Roxie Munro, there's something special about buildings. Her covers for the New Yorker, like the illustrations for her many children's books, reveal unexpected angles, their perspectives mischievously distorted.

"They're like huge sculptures with interesting shapes and varied masses," Munro says, "each so individual, like a person with its own character."

So it's no surprise that when Julie Gribble, who lives at 112 Franklin St., decided to immortalize the block between West Broadway and Church Street, she asked Munro to do it. Gribble's company, Kid LitTV, a multimedia website for parents and educators that promotes reading, is also at 112 Franklin.

"I always wanted to work with Roxie," says Gribble, who has been a fan of the illustrator and painter for many years. "She has an incredible eye."

Gribble asked Munro to paint the street as it would have appeared in 1926, in memory of her father who died recently and who was born in that year.

The 5-foot-by-5-foot painting, unveiled at Kid LitTV's first anniversary party this week, shows a Tribeca street little changed from 89 years ago.

"I love that street," Munro says as she puts the finishing touches on the canvas in her Long Island City studio. "It doesn't go to a vanishing point. It takes a little curve there so you can't see New Jersey. It reminds me of a street in Paris."

Researching how the street looked in 1926 was a collaborative effort—Gribble and Munro, with their husbands Glenn Gribble and Bo Zaunders, all helped. Zaunders, a photographer and writer, took numerous photos of the street, and scoured the photo collections of the New York Public Library, Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society in search of archival images.

But it was a link to old photos of the elevated tracks that once ran above West Broadway that Glenn Gribble sent to Munro that led them to a missing piece of the street's visual history. What did the building look like that was located on the southeast corner of Franklin Street and West Broadway, where the Con Ed substation now stands?

"Julie and I were studying one of the photos of the el from 1908," Munro recalls, "and then we noticed—it also showed a part of the building on the corner!"

A paintbrush in hand, Munro now wonders aloud if she should add an historically accurate fire escape railing. She steps back, studies the painting and decides against it.

"In painting, unlike photography, you construct a kind of world. You can put things in a painting that isn't perfect perspective, for example, but it's the way it feels. I call it 'participatory space.' It's the space you're in as well as what you're looking at."

Munro emphasizes that she is not a Photorealist. Doorknobs and rivets might be missing, she says, and a pediment added. The pavement of Franklin Street was unlikely to have glowed as it does in her painting. Liberties were taken with the colors of the overhangs.

"I don't want to get distracted by details," the artist explains. "I am looking for the essence of the street."