Gated Abandonment on Bowery ~ downtown NYC

A Lower East Side building has haunted me for a while. From under layers of graffiti, a Gilded Age stone design hints at a former glory; its elaborate iron fixtures are rusty and unkempt. Located on the corner of Spring Street, this building, Number 190 Bowery, is surrounded by restaurant supply shops, the New Museum, cafes, and restaurants.


Lonely intercom

Let me put it this way: In a city as densely populated as New York City, where space is prized, this is prime real estate. So how can such a gorgeous building stand seemingly empty?

I’m not the only one wondering. When I visited earlier this month to take photos of its street art, the homeless guys sitting nearby were asking me this question. I hadn’t a clue how to respond… and so, after a bit of research, I discovered the story behind it all.

<It would have helped had I paid attention to one (now obvious) sign…>

This Bowery building was constructed in 1898. It used to be the Germania Bank to a neighbourhood made up of the German working class.

By 1966, the bank was abandoned and put up for sale. Along came artist and photographer Jay Maisel. In the market for a studio space, he was shown this building by broker, Jack Klein. In those days, Maisel was paying $125 a month for a 2,500-square-foot studio at 122 Second Avenue, though an unexpected $50 rent hike had thrown him off kilter.

Klein convinced Maisel he could raise the money to buy the abandoned bank. That was the easy part. Then he moved in. The main floor was knee-deep in garbage and coated in soot. “I had to shovel shit against the tide,” says Maisel. He wasn’t getting a lot of support either; the Bowery was where people ended up, not where they aspired to live. “My parents cried,” he says. “Every single thing that can come out of a human body has been left on my doorstep. But it was more disgusting than dangerous. (NY Magazine.)

Maisel’s name is right on the door…

An unused entrance

Today, Maisel, along with his wife and daughter, still live in this six-story space by themselves. Maisel claims the building contains 72 rooms over 35,000 square feet. These values are yet to be confirmed as Maisel allows neither agent walk-throughs nor real estate valuations. Some food for thought: in 1966, Maisel purchased the former bank for $102,000. In 2008, its value was estimated between $30 to $70 million. Maisel has no plans to sell.

I haven’t been inside, but have read that a few levels are dedicated to Maisel’s photo and art galleries, and workshops. One can even take a week long photography workshop with the artist inside his home for $5,000 (includes full board). This would anyone one step ahead of those brokers, who are clamouring for a floor plan.

The fourth floor, which Maisel once rented out to Roy Lichtenstein, is a work-in-progress. But there have been no major changes to the interior. It’s essentially unchanged from the Germania Bank that architect Robert Maynicke designed for the then-bourgeois neighborhood (it cost $200,000 to build). The original safe-deposit vault, still in the basement, is the size of a generous studio apartment; the marks on the main floor where the teller booths once stood are still clearly visible. (NY Mag)

Air conditioning is expensive, so Maisel makes his own shades to keep out the sun

The ground level of this building is available for rent. Interested? Go to:

Now, about those graffiti-covered walls… I’ve seen a slew of mosaics, paste ups, stickers, graffiti ,and stencils.

“We’re responsible for the sidewalks in front of our building… The city wants the exterior graffiti-free, but it’s impossible: 190 Bowery is a mecca for street artists”… Maisel tried scrubbing the building every week, but “it was like I was providing a fresh canvas for them.” Keith Haring used to cover the exterior in chalk babies, says Maisel, and that he liked, both for the spirit of the images and because they washed off so easily.

Alas – mystery solved! Neither haunted nor abandoned, for now all we can do is admire the building from the outside and wonder what will become of it, and its tenants, in the future.

68 thoughts on “Gated Abandonment on Bowery ~ downtown NYC

    • Yes, I was thinking of your previous post just now, ‘Faster than a Speeding Pullet’. The poor family has to deal with agents who are eager to sell their home. Thanks for your comment!

  1. oh wowowow, this is so fascinating! I was shocked to learn that someone lives there, in a building so abandoned, but then again I couldn’t imagine this building not to be accommodated in New York! The building is a piece of art itself, and all these little details are amazing 😀 Great post, Marina, so interesting! 🙂

      • It is pleasing to see a grand old building being allowed to stand, and how cool that it is in the hands of an artist! I’m totally green with envy. In Racine WI you can buy a big old building downtown for 1$….but I’ve never had the courage to face the challenge.

      • Wow! $1! You should seize the challenge. If anything, you have a piece of real estate, or land, and can use the building to your own artistic abilities. I say go for it! Thanks for your comment – so interesting 🙂

  2. What a great post! Couldn’t stop reading! …and what a deal he made! 🙂 I will give your blog address to some friends of mine who lives in NY. Must be great to have this blog as an inspiration for a sunday walk!

    • Hi Pedro! That’s so kind of you – thanks for further sharing the info. There were quite a few people snapping photos and checking out the graffiti+art when I was there so it is an attraction for those walking by. He’s got some serious ROI happening with his investment. Thanks for leaving your lovely comment!

    • Thank you! It was interesting to find that people actually live in there – I was a little taken back that Maisel also offers workshops for anyone who has the $$ to take them. What do you think of Maisel’s work?

  3. Change can sometimes take a long time (years) in NYC. But inevitably it will occur. We will then reminisce about what was. See the ‘Lower East Side’ which now has a tour and museum dedicated to the tenements which once were. The neighborhoods of Manhattan keep improving and with it a lot of the grit of NY is gone.

  4. This is an amazing story. Can you imagine how important his home must be to him and his wife to be sitting on that many millions? That truly is a testament to what home means.

    The homeless guys must not ever see the family moving in and out….
    Thanks so much for sharing.

    • As Maisel had said: ” “I fantasize about never having to worry about money again,” Maisel muses. “It would be great to take the money and run. But let’s face it, where are we going to go? A three-room apartment?” ” (NY Mag) Oh, and about the homeless guys – maybe the family either doesn’t leave through the main entrance in broad daylight? Maisel’s wife, Linda, had said that she fears facing the aggressive real estate agents that are sometimes found outside her home… Also, ” “Linda cooks a lot, but when they do order in, “it’s a riot,” she says. “You have to wait downstairs and watch for the delivery person, because they’ll pass right by. Who is going to think that there is one person ordering from this building? Who wants to leave their bicycle outside?” ” (NY Mag)
      It really is a different way to live! Thanks for comment and letting me share some more information with you 🙂

  5. I live in nyc and I also was totally intrigued by this building. I did the digging myself and would SO love to take a photo class there – but $5,000 is a little steep. So curious to see the inside though! Enjoyed reading this. 🙂

  6. wow, I love your blog; where to start, first I love nyc, and everytime I see one of your posts I learn something about the city which is facinating. I will admit that it is the photography that draws me in. Thanks for sharing your city, and your work.

    • Wow – thank you for your comment. It makes it such a pleasure to share these bits of information when I read such heartening comments like yours. I appreciate your comment on the photography!

  7. Hello Marina 🙂
    As a potential visitor to NYC, I would never find these gems in a guidebook. When I come I’ll definitely be armed with a laptop and a desktop link to your archives.This was a fascinating story. As you say, it’s a beautiful building and to a Brit, very New York. I too will now be off to do a bit of reading about Jay Maisel. Knowledge begets Knowledge..

    • Dear Adrian, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I like discovering these nontraditional landmarks – and so it really makes me happy when others are as wowed by them as me. Let me know what you think of Jay Maisel’s work. Maybe you can visit NYC and take his workshop for a week?! That would be a cool trip!

  8. Not sure if you’re old enough to remember the TV show “Naked City” but the intro included a line that went something like “there’s 8 million stories in this naked city….and this is one of them” – you are providing us with some of those stories! Many thanks Marina!!

    • Hi Scott! Great to read from you – thanks for your comment. No, I haven’t heard of the show though I will research it 😉 Glad to share these discoveries with you as at the same time, I learn so much myself. The camera really has been a big part in inspiring me to do view so much more of NYC! With all your traveling, I am sure you know where I am coming from re: being inspired to take so many photos 🙂

  9. I love this building…and the sad part is that there are less and less of the like in NY! Thank you for providing the history behind this myterious place and such wonderful pictures!

    • I agree – these buildings are few and far between. I think that the family has been brave not to “sell out”, staying true to their home, and subsequently keeping its history alive. Thanks for your comment about the post – I appreciate it!

  10. Completely fascinating Marina!
    It’s unbelievable that 1 small family has been living in there for so many years. I just want to get inside!
    The images you took are fantastic. Although it does have an abandoned look the graffiti just adds to the whole mystery of it. You are right about the *goldmine* part.
    My favourite post yet! Thank you for the mystery. 🙂

    • Karen! Thank you – that’s so kind of you to say about this post! When you come to NYC, perhaps you’ll consider doing a workshop with Maisel? You’d definitely get to ‘live and breathe’ the interior as the cost includes full board for a week. Can you imagine how amazing that would be?! Something to think about. In the meantime, I am glad to have shared the images and words with you 🙂

  11. Astonishing…the owl, wow. All these are so right up my alley, you know, and you paint the scenery so incredibly well with your words, Marina. And this is what I find so incredible about the internet, about where we are today, this available technology, this ability to share such personal (and yet) such universally valid imagery. Great storytelling, superb imagery.

    • JP – I am so glad that you noticed the owl. I love it too! Thanks so much for your comment – it’s really appreciated. Writing these posts and sharing information is such a good learning experience. You don’t know what you don’t know. Thanks again 🙂

    • Thanks Alicia, for your comment! Can you imagine mazing through those 72 rooms?! Perhaps when you plan a trip, you might keep a workshop in mind for a week… Let me know if that could happen 😉 Thanks!

  12. That’s amazing I’m completely intrigued. If only $5000 was a little easier to come by, it would be worth it just for a peak inside. He seems to be a fascinating character. He’s definitely made a good thing out of what used to be “knee high piles of trash”…
    His workshop sounds like it would be pretty intense!

    • That’s what I thought when I read the workshop description – intense. It’s such an intriguing building and hey – if that $5K is available – it’s something to consider. Imagine the other people you’d be workshopping with too – either serious photogs or interested building fans 😉 Thanks!

  13. All this on building!? Its bordering on being an eye sore but it still has a lot of character. Someone should put a little more color in its dull bricks and cracks. Great post! 🙂

    • No! Hardly an eye-sore. it’s a gorgeous building though could do with some colour. It’s layered with temporary art on art on temporary art – I guess it won’t take long for the exterior to look different. Thanks!!

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  15. Jay Maisel is one of my favorite photographers and I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at the Photo Expo at Jacob Javits a few months ago. I’m saving my pennies to take his class.

    • Hi Karen! Wow – that’s great. Thank you for sharing and you’re so lucky to be able to take his workshop. I really enjoyed his portfolio online – not having studied photography, I hadn’t heard of him before. Will you keep me posted in if you take it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and see your works from it. Thanks!

  16. Fascinating story. I really enjoy that sort of thing. And the building is gorgeous…beautiful architecture. Kudos to you for all your research…so the rest of us can learn from it! Thanks!
    BTW….your photos are wonderful. I love the detail of the building, the lock and chain on such a cool looking metal door, for instance.

    • Thanks Judy! I really appreciate your comment. I was really intrigued by the building and armed with the new camera, it was the time to uncover and discover. Who knew a renowned photographer lived in there? I’m glad to share it with you and thanks you so much for the comment on my photos. I’m on the learning curve 🙂

  17. Hi Marina, what a fantastic story & as ever wonderful pictures containing such detail. You really do capture everything. I would really be interested in how you manage your pictures post capture. I really need to do more with mine. Your composition is inspirational.
    I recently discovered Jay Maisel through another Word Press blog & I am hooked on his work. To read your detailed entry here is wonderful. Many thanks. 🙂

    • Wow, Miltonjohns, thank you so much for your generous comment. Unfortunately, I can’t share too much about post production; I only use my retouch menu on the Nikon D5000. I haven’t studied composition closely either though I do like to angle the camera every single way, to see what I like in the view finder. That’s really cool, that you’re a fan of Jay Maisel’s work, and that this post resonated with you. Perhaps you’ll take one of his workshops? I really appreciate your thoughts as it is always so inspiring to hear what other’s think. Thanks so much!

  18. Reblogged this on MiltonJohns Photography and commented:
    Take just five minutes to read this story & spend the next five hours looking at the incredible detail in these pictures and then take some time to research Jay Maisel. Marina really has captured some wonderful pictures & tells a great story. Take a look at her blog. You will not be disappointed.

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