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.

Doorway

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: http://190thebowery.com/

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.

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