Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

The Battle of Vestry Street: Art Collector and Philanthropist versus Working Artists Past and Present

The war of attrition between cultural heritage and real estate greed has a new flashpoint: 67 Vestry Street.  Designed by one of the architects of the Flat Iron Building, this historic artists’ live/work building in lower Manhattan is in danger of being demolished to make way for yet another shiny, high-rent investment property. RFR Holding, whose principal, art collector Aby Rosen, is ironically chair of New York State Council on the Arts, has filed plans to build an 11-story, 42-unit building on the site.

67 Vestry Street.  Photo: Courtesy of Massey Knakal
67 Vestry Street. Photo: Courtesy of Massey Knakal

But residents are fighting back, many artists among them . With the aid of Tribeca Trust, they are now petitioning for landmark protection with  They already have over 1500 signatures.  And they have organized as, with strong presence on social media.

The historic building Rosen proposes to demolish was one of the first large purpose-built warehouses in New York, its defenders argue. Built in 1896 for A&P, a related A&P warehouse in New Jersey by the same architect,  Frederick P. Dinkelberg, is already landmarked. Frank Helmle, architect of the Bush Terminal Sales Building, added the two top stories in 1910. Honoring it as a landmark supports Washington Street and Washington Market historic preservation.

Rosen has a mixed reputation among art lovers. As the New York Times wrote of him in 2006, “Unlike many New York real estate moguls, who simply tear down the old to build the new, [he] has established a track record of acquiring architectural touchstones like Lever House, the Seagram Building and the Gramercy Park Hotel and renovating them, at considerable effort and expense.”  His Vestry Street project would seem to contradict the impression of a faithful steward of artistic heritage, argues Roland Gebhardt, a conceptual and minimal artist who has lived at 67 Vestry since 1974.  “If [Rosen] really was interested in doing something iconic,” he says, referring to a statement by the developer in The Architect’s Newspaper where he speaks of adding an iconic tower to the Tribeca skyline, “the iconic thing to do would be to preserve this iconic buildings that created an iconic neighborhood.”

Currently, 12 of the tenants at 67 Vestry Street are visual artists, writers, designers, architects and musicians. Artists who live or have lived there over the years include Jack Beal, John Chamberlain, Mark di Suvero, Marisol Escobar, and Dan Flavin.  Warhol had a studio on the second floor for a year, and his assistant and chief painter at The Factory Ronnie Cutrone was a longtime resident.  Other illustrative creative types associated with the building include the gallerists Miguel Abreu, Heiner Friedrick and Tim Nye, musicians Lennie Kravitz and Howard Johnson, and dancer, Lucinda Childs. Wim Wenders filmed inside and outside the building in The American Friend  and Robert Wilson collaborated with Phillip Glass on Einstein on the Beach on the 8th floor.

Larry Gagosian and Aby Rosen in Miami, 2012.  Photo: Seth Browarnik
Larry Gagosian and Aby Rosen in Miami, 2012. Photo: Seth Browarnik

When painter Paul Pagk,  resident since 1988,  moved to Tribeca, with Chinatown and Pearl Paint on his doorstep,  Paula Cooper and Leo Castelli were still within walking distance, he tells “Most of 67 Vestry was rent stabilized in 1977, and the second and third floors came under Loft Law as Interim Multiple Dwellings (IMD) in 1992.  By 2012 the entire building was rent stabilized and the landlord was granted a Certificate of Occupancy. Now Rosen may ask for building permits and permission to demolish the building, which he couldn’t do when we were loft tenants under IMD.” The tenants are being timed out by laws that protect owners but ignore the tenants’ investment of time and money and their cultural network that has lasted nearly 50 years.

Another resident, the writer, architect and urbanist Jacqueline Miro, recounts that “in the 1970s, when David Ellis acquired 67 Vestry for very little money, he encouraged artists to move in and placed ads in The Village Voice to attract them. Artists were able to have large, well-lit studio spaces to work in all kinds of mediums; they made the lofts livable at their own expense, increasing the property values with a minimum of expense to the owners. City government agendas for downtown renewal center around CULTURE and the lure of the artistic persona.”

For Aby Rosen, art collector and philanthropist  whose RFR also holds the Seagram Building, Lever House, and Gramercy Park Hotel, this is not his first brush with cultural conservancy issues.  In early April, The New York Landmarks Conservancy won a temporary restraining order to prevent Rosen from removing Le Tricorne, the fragile Picasso curtain, from the lobby of the Four Seasons Restaurant. The Four Seasons and the Seagram Building in which it is located were landmarked in 1989, but while the NYLC owns the Picasso curtain, permanent protection for the piece has yet to be decided.

Lever House, landmarked in 1982, showcases Rosen’s and Alberto Mugrabi’s art collection (Jeff Koons, Tom Sachs, Damien Hirst et al.)  with installations that often mock consumerism, power and entitlement, taking full advantage of the expensive and glassy Park Avenue setting. The Bruce High Quality Foundation, for instance, installed a twelve-foot-high, bronze union rat in 2012 while Barbara Kruger wallpapered the walls in the same year with “You make history when you do business,” and “A rich man’s jokes are always funny”

And there is a connection between Lever House and Vestry Street.  John Chamberlain’s giant, recycled-car-metal piece, Hedge,was exhibited and included in the Lever House Collection in 2013 after his death. Chamberlain lived on the 6th floor of 67 Vestry Street in the ‘70s. The New York State Council for the Arts mission statement reads: “Sustaining a vital ecosystem of individual artists and cultural organizations that supports the creation, presentation, critical review, and distribution of the arts and culture.”

By that criterion, landmarking  67 Vestry Street would help keep art innovation within the footprint of New York even as artists leave for Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other more affordable cities.

Page from featuring bronze rat of Bruce High Quality Foundation, 2012
Page from featuring bronze rat of Bruce High Quality Foundation, 2012