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A Jeweler and Sculptor Who Takes Inspiration From the Walls of Her Studio

A Jeweler and Sculptor Who Takes Inspiration From the Walls of Her Studio

Amid the looming loft buildings all around, the unassuming brick house at the corner of Manhattan’s Bleecker and Crosby Streets — four stories topped by a pair of attic dormers, with an attached carriage house crouching behind — is easy to overlook. Perhaps that is, in part, why it has endured for two centuries. When it was built in 1823, as a residence for the branch of the Roosevelt family that would eventually produce Franklin Delano, it stood at the edge of the city, its north-facing facade looking out upon a mostly rural view. Within a few decades, though, the urban frontier had swept past it — the fancy people had moved on to Bond Street and Washington Square, and waves of immigrants crowded into the surrounding tenements. And so the house came to stand on a borderline between neighborhoods, its quoined corners and Dutch roofline attesting to its erstwhile respectability. It was the perfect choice for the two sisters who rented it in 1857.

Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, then in their 30s, had already achieved an unusual amount of notoriety for having become, respectively, the first and third woman to earn medical degrees in the United States. But they’d completed their training only to discover that most patients wealthy enough to call on a private physician were not eager to consult a woman — in the 1850s, the very phrase “female physician” evoked thoughts of people like Madame Restell, the infamous practitioner of abortions who’d built a Fifth Avenue mansion with her earnings. The women of the tenements, however, could not afford to be picky. So, with the help of sympathetic donors, many of them Quakers, the Blackwell sisters founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, which was the country’s first women-staffed hospital, at the corner of Bleecker and Crosby.

Today, the building is the center of operations for the sculptor and jewelry designer Jill Platner, who made her way there in the early 1990s, and has found ample inspiration within its walls, while adding her own chapter to its rich history. Growing up in Massachusetts and Maine, Platner, now 51, was happiest roaming the natural world, learning more through experience than through school. “The grown-ups didn’t know what to do with me,” she says. “They didn’t know how to peg me, or how to help me.” Then a friend drove her to New York for the weekend, and she knew it was where she was supposed to be. A year later, she enrolled at Parsons School of Design and signed up for a metalworking class. Again the recognition was immediate: “This is what I’m supposed to do,” she thought. She made her first necklace — carving irregular ring forms from wax, casting them and then stacking them on black cord — put it on, and took it for a spin. “A woman asked if she could buy it straight off my body,” Platner says.

For her thesis project she collected pebbles from her favorite beach, north of Boston, and encased them in armatures of silver: small stones of matching size became earrings, larger natural ovals became pendants. A buyer at Barneys promptly wrote an order, which meant that Platner was in business — but she needed a workshop. An ad tacked to a bulletin board at Bubby’s, the TriBeCa restaurant co-founded in 1990 by her then boyfriend, led her to Bleecker and Crosby. She remembers climbing the creaking wooden stairs for the first time, noticing the brick hearths in each corner and the chisel marks on the hand-hewn beams — a kind of considered artisanship reflected by her own — and gasping at the light that flooded in from the tall sash windows at either end. She rented one floor of the building and made it her studio, setting workbenches beneath the windows and polishing machines in the middle of the space. Eventually, she expanded into the carriage house, where an anvil takes center stage. It’s there that new ideas move from Platner’s mind and into metal, whether that of the massive steel mobiles hanging from the rafters, or the delicate silver elements of her wearable art: spirals and rings and toggles and clasps filed in a chest of vintage industrial drawers. (“I traded jewelry for the chest with an antiques dealer friend a couple of doors down,” Platner recalls.) Fabric-draped couches make an unexpected counterpoint to hammers and drills; in fact, though Platner can often be found there wielding a mallet or a jeweler’s saw, it’s a place of immense comfort. “I’ve always felt that the building took care of me,” she says. “It’s a refuge.”

Still, it wasn’t until 2007, when she was looking to purchase her space in the building, that she learned caregiving was actually built into its legacy. Coming across the Blackwell sisters in the course of her research, she says, “connected all the dots for me.” Platner’s workshop in the main building had once held a warren of rooms for the infirmary’s resident physician and the young female interns who came for practical training. These recent graduates would fan out into the surrounding blocks as what were known as sanitary visitors, supplying instruction on hygiene, as well as prenatal and infant care. The lower floors held wards for illness and maternity, and the ground level contained the dispensary and waiting room. In its first year of operation, the small hospital drew nearly a thousand patients, with Emily Blackwell performing dozens of surgeries. Both her work and her sister’s brought solace to the neighborhood, and won the respect even of those who found the idea of a woman doctor to be scandalous.

Platner’s discovery of the story coincided with a breakthrough in her metalwork: a linking technique she invented that allows metal to move like fabric. The result, launched that same year, was a collection of more than thirty pieces — pendants, bracelets and chains — that she decided to call Blackwell. “I dove in deep,” she says. “There was no stopping me. It’s like a channel to the sky when that happens.” The names for the individual designs include Wish, Dream, Build, Cobblestone and Crosby. These pieces have a satisfying heft and drape to them, bending just so far and then locking into curves as firm as armor, which is fitting not only because they were inspired by female warriors of a sort but also because Platner’s name is derived from the archaic German “platener,” a medieval maker of armored breastplates. The success of the collection in turn led to some of Platner’s most iconic sculptures — ten-foot-tall pendants that spin and sway with uncanny grace. The miniature informed the monumental, and vice versa; the engineering of the mobiles gave rise to further technical innovations in subsequent jewelry collections.

In a way, the building itself became another one of Platner’s pieces. Having secured a share in its ownership in 2012, she and her partners embarked on a restoration of its structure. The infirmary had flourished at this location only briefly before moving to larger quarters on Second Avenue in 1859, and the next century-and-a-half’s worth of tenants, both commercial and residential, had taken a toll. “The bricks were bulging out and the roof was collapsing,” says Platner. “At the peak of the roof, the bricks could be removed by hand because they didn’t have any mortar.” Construction has lasted three years (with Platner taking the opportunity to hang her mobiles from the scaffolding outside to do the finishing work on them), and the removal of shaky ceilings and grime-encrusted floor coverings revealed original beams and wide planks. “We pulled out the floorboards, milled them and reinstalled them,” she says. More surprisingly, artifacts emerged from inside walls and between joists: a 19th-century glass bottle, a lump of coal.

In January, I published a biography of the Blackwell sisters, which is how I came to meet Platner. Three years ago, as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation prepared to install a commemorative plaque on the building, she opened its side door and graciously invited me inside. She even let me write the book’s first chapter in her studio, so that I might feel inspired by the space, just as she had been. As I worked, Platner’s sculptures rotated serenely in the area where the Blackwells and their nurses and resident assistants once bent over rows of iron bedsteads made up with carefully mended linens, and the veil between past and present felt gossamer-thin.

Now, the restoration of the building is nearing completion. Platner’s hope is that it will soon enter its third century as a place for female-driven ventures, her own and those of prospective tenants, in lasting acknowledgment of the pioneering achievement that happened at this spot. Platner recently moved her namesake boutique — a showroom for both her sculpture and jewelry, including the enduring Blackwell collection and more recent designs — from SoHo into the building’s street level, reaffirming the address as her headquarters for the future. “It became one of our missions to turn around this building,” she says. “We’ll do anything we can to forward this, to keep it moving.”

Janice P. Nimura is the author of “The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women — and Women to Medicine” (2021).


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