On January 1, 1970—forty-five years ago—I moved into the fourth floor at 145 West Broadway, on the northeast corner of Thomas Street and West Broadway. In the decade before that I had been living in an Upper West Side studio apartment on 68th Street just off Central Park West. “Studio apartment” in real estate parlance means, basically, one room—but my studio apartment actually became a working studio, the one in which I began my life as an artist. It was a spacious room to be sure, about twenty feet square, and had once been a bedroom in a townhouse that had been converted into apartments. Still, it wasn’t long before I realized I needed a more proper place to work and while keeping my apartment I moved successively into progressively larger outside studio spaces.
The first was at Columbus Ave between 67th and 68th Streets, a block away. It was in a two-story commercial building—now long gone—that had shops on the street floor and small businesses arranged along a long hallway above. One climbed a winding staircase with a skylight and a large avocado plant in the center to find a luggage repair shop, a small travel agency, a furniture restorer and, a few steps from the stairwell, my one-room studio.
I was not there very long before I heard, one afternoon, piano music and strange vocalizations coming from a room a few doors away. I soon learned they came from a prospective opera singer named Larry Hager, who became a lifelong friend. He lived on the Upper East Side but came every day to his studio, complete with grand piano and daybed, to study scores and music. Every few days he would walk a few blocks north to the Ansonia Hotel, then home to many singers, composers, musicians and maestros, to take lessons from a legendary voice coach, Julia Drobner.
When the Columbus Avenue studio also began to seem small, I moved operations to a similar, although larger, building near the Chelsea Hotel on the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street. It was about three times the size of the Columbus Avenue place and for a while I shared it with an artist named Cletus Johnson. He needed some space to start building his lighted, theatre façade constructions. Only six or so subway stops away from my apartment, the studio was a great location for many reasons. One of them was a terrific hardware store, Kove Bros., only steps away. Incredibly—and unlike the building my studio was in—it still survives to this day. Another was that I was only a half block away from where the artist May Wilson lived and worked. At the time I thought of May as an old woman—though she was then only in her mid-sixties. She presided over a kind of standing late afternoon salon into which one might drop after a day in the studio. Artists, performers, musicians—you never knew who might show up. Ray Johnson was a regular, Meridith Monk, even Rod Stewart once made an guest appearance. Valerie Solanis, who famously shot Andy Warhol, once asked May to take care of her gun for a few days. Great fun and amusing. May’s sense of humor, inclusiveness and permission-giving personality kept everything humming.
But after a short time in that studio I realized I could easily do with even more space. I also thought that perhaps I might combine “working” with “living” once again and thereby avoid a daily studio commute. A spacious loft just might just be the answer. By this time I was acquainted with a few artists who had such exotic places. My dealer at the time, Richard Feigen, a young collector named Si Newhouse and I once visited to Roy Lichtenstein’s studio—a second-floor walk-up loft in the west 20’s. And I had become friendly with Robert Indiana, visiting him on many occasions. He lived and worked on two floors at the top of a small loft building way downtown on Coenties Slip: very exotic—and incidentally quite illegal. He once invited me for dinner with some other artists and when it got dark he rose from the table and proceeded to pin blankets up over the windows. Light shining from them could have alerted the police to the fact that someone was living in the building.
And so I began to be on the lookout for a loft.
At the time Alvin Dickstein, a painter friend I met through Robert Indiana, lived in a big full-floor loft on West Broadway near City Hall. The neighborhood was then called Washington Market. Only many years later did it become the acronymic “Tribeca.” The other floors in Alvin’s building were all occupied by artists, Deborah Kass and Kestutis Zapkus among them. Across the street Richard Lippold had had a studio; later Susan Rothenberg and George Trakis lived and worked in the same building.
One day Alvin told me that a nearby loft was available and he put me in touch with the owners of the building. It was two doors away at number 145, on the northeast corner of West Broadway and Thomas Street. When you looked up it appeared to be two buildings, though as I learned later the interior floors had been joined many years ago. The entire glass-fronted street floor was occupied by a restaurant run by Artie and Joan Pantzer. Joan was the cashier by the door and Artie managed the kitchen. Mini, a black and white cat, kept Joan company behind the cash register. The place was called Towers Cafeteria and it closed every afternoon at four o’clock after a brisk breakfast and lunch trade for local workers. Weekends it was dark because on Saturdays and Sundays the neighborhood was basically deserted. Joan and Artie also happened to be the owners of the building—and they eventually became my landlords.
When the small manufacturing businesses on the upper floors announced they were moving out the Pantzers decided to try to rent the vacated spaces to artists. For one thing they felt that having people settled in the building would make it safer in case of any emergency. And anyway they liked artists and creative types. Regulars at the cafeteria included Chuck Close, John Chamberlain, Mary Heilman and Philip Glass. Richard Serra, who still lives in the neighborhood, could be regularly seen pushing his tray along the hot table, having the ticket he took from the machine by the entrance punched as made his lunch selections. The chicken soup was good but I always felt the tuna salad was a bit heavy on the celery.
Joan and Artie told me that a company called Photo Screen had just moved out of the fourth floor. Photo Screen was a manufacturer of silk-screened wallpaper and it was among the many small manufacturers who at that time were beginning to leave lower Manhattan for less expensive venues across the river in New Jersey. They were gone and the floor had been cleared out.
Artie took me to see it. We entered the elevator on the street next to the cafeteria’s entrance and were deposited directly onto Photo Screen’s old floor. When I saw the big open space I knew it was for me. For one thing it had a couple of large, arched windows overlooking West Broadway. And when we crossed over onto the other side, two of the four walls of a huge room were lined with windows. What an excellent studio it would make, I thought. In no time I signed a lease. But I kept thinking to myself, “How in the world am I ever going to be able to come up with $300 each month in rent?”
In those days, of course, it was still strictly illegal to live in such places. But that didn’t keep artists from doing it. SoHo by that time was being heavily colonized by artists. And the more they did it the more the city seemed to conveniently look the other way.
When I moved in, on January 1, 1970, there was, actually, already one other person living in the building, on the top floor. He was a graphic designer named Fred Swanson who specialized in record album covers.
My 2,400 square feet were completely empty. Except, as it turned out, for the flocking dust that filled every crevice and made pointed heaps along the overhead sprinkler pipes. Flocked wallpaper, I found out, was a specialty of Photo Screen. The amenities consisted of a small men’s room and an equally small women’s room, each with a tiny wall-mounted sink. I did some basic renovations, putting a stall shower and a larger sink in one of the restrooms and reserving the other as a loo. And I devised a small kitchen area which remains basically the same today, though the original under-the-counter refrigerator has been upgraded.
Photo Screen, I might add, had not in fact completely vacated the building and still occupied two floors, one of them below me. I heard the rumble of their machinery every day through the floor which was not constructed to include soundproofing. Above me was a shoe wholesaler, one of many in the neighborhood in those days. His domain was a labyrinth of narrow passages between ceiling-high stacks of boxed shoes. He was a perfect gentleman, always wore a hat, and I used to think of him as Mr. Shoeman. If I happened to run into him at the end of the day he would always wave and say, “Stay well!” In the winter, when the cafeteria closed at four and the workers in the building had all gone for the day, the heat would be automatically turned seriously down. Needless to say, I very much treasured my electric blanket during the winter months. At night visiting friends found the neighborhood creepy, even rather scary. It is true that if I saw someone on the deserted streets I would think, “Gee, who could that be?” But it had to be one of the safest neighborhoods in New York. Muggings? There was no one to mug!
Over the coming years other artists began moving in to the building. One of my upstairs neighbors, a painter named Nancy Frank, had a ‘tuxedo’ cat named Ernie. She also had another roommate named Tony Mendoza. Tony was a photographer. And when Tony met Ernie he knew he had encountered a cat with personality plus. He soon began to record the life of his very photogenic feline housemate. Eventually he made a book of the photographs and wrote a witty text for it. Ernie became a best seller and still is, after all these years, in print. I treasure my copy because it was actually signed by its subject. Believe me, getting Ernie to press his paw onto a rubber stamp pad and then down on the first page was not accomplished without a bit of a struggle.
On the floor above me was a sometime masseuse and dance instructor named Lillian Concordia. In the afternoons puffs of dust would descend from the ceiling in the studio half of my space when her students would simultaneously leap and jump. Lillian also had a dog. I mention it only because I managed at one point to import its fleas—from the common-use stair hallway—and had to move out for a day while my place was fumigated. There was also a photographer, Sandy Noyes, who had studied with Minor White and who was wonderfully patient helping me to develop and print, in his darkroom, some photographs I had taken of my work. For a time another photographer/artist, Peter Campus, was a subletter in the building. And nearby I soon found out there were a scattering of other artists at work. Susan Rothenberg and George Trakis lived across the street and we became friends. Someone told me that Richard Lippold, whom I later met through Ray Johnson, had once had a studio in the same building as theirs. I am sorry I never thought to ask him whether that was true.
In 1980, after I’d been there for a decade, Arty and Joan decided to sell the building and retire to Vermont. This of course meant closing the cafeteria, which had been founded in 1933 by Artie’s father Louis. It is curious, even a bit eerie, that he chose to name it “Towers Cafeteria” given that two world-famous, doomed towers—those of the World Trade Center—were not to rise but a few blocks away until almost forty years later.
The new owner of the building, Mickey Joffe, in the forefront of a downtown trend, turned it into a co-op. To do this he had to “bring the building up to code”—which effectively meant that the ancient elevator, a wire-cage affair with a hand-operated throttle that rattled its way precariously from floor to floor, was replaced. And I got a new, proper bathroom and my own heating system.
And it was at this point that Keith and Lynn McNally, along with Keith’s brother Brian, transformed the Towers Cafeteria into The Odeon, soon to become a downtown dining mecca for art world glitterati. The original red neon signage above the entrance was kept and “Towers” was replaced by “Odeon.” The word “Cafeteria,” though, still shines on the Thomas Street façade, a bit of urban archeology for those in the know. The restaurant still continues today under Lynn’s meticulous direction.
Before long each of the upper floors, re-fitted and modernized according to their new owner’s various tastes, were being lived in by “proper folks.” The other artists in the building had been “bought out” and moved. Ernie the cat’s owner moved to Telluride, Colorado. But I remained: the building’s lone artist mascot.
My fourth-floor space, in its bones, has remained pretty much as it was when I first moved in. Of the two buildings that make up 145 West Broadway, each from a different era, the corner one is important in the history of cast iron architecture because of its unique, ‘rusticated’ iron cladding. It has windows on both the West Broadway and Thomas Street sides and it was in that space that I decided to make my studio. I walled of part off it to make a bedroom.
The only real door in the place is that of the bathroom. I never got around to scraping and painting the walls—or the echt, patterned tin ceilings, so typical of New York commercial architecture in the 19th century. That don’t-touch-it distressed-wall look would become fashionable many years later. Who knew? I did, however, make an exception for the studio where white walls seemed de rigueur.
Still, over the years various structural accretions have occurred, mainly to provide bookcases, closets and other storage areas. David Morton, an architect friend, once impressed me by saying that when you stand in a big open interior space it is very satisfying to be able to see all the places where the ceiling meets the walls at the corners: as a consequence I have avoided building any partitions all the way to the ceiling (except for the up-to-code bathroom). You can see over their tops to the room corners.
After SoHo became an upscale shopping venue, challenging even Madison Avenue, many artists moved south, below Canal Street. Now, though, the only artists who remain in the neighborhood are ones who were lucky enough to make early real estate deals by buying their floors (the going rate in the old days was about $25,000), by being rent-stabilized or simply by having a sympathetic landlord (yes, they do exist!). It pleases me today to look out of my big arched window in the evening and know that in the cast iron corner building across the street three of the floors are lit up by artists’ studios (those of Bobbie Oliver, Sophie Matisse and Rand Hardy, all friends). Down the block are Jane Kent and her husband David Storey and further down the street are Jean Holabird and quite a few others. But how long can they—can we—hang on? Certainly no young artists or even ones with good careers going can any longer afford to live in the neighborhood, now overrun by bold-face names and hedge fund–propelled baby strollers.
When I began living in my loft the big area with the arched windows that I called my living room was completely empty. I had no furniture to speak of but I did have three or four smallish oriental rugs. These I laid on top of six-inch foam rubber pads, cut to size for me on Canal St. and encased in velvet slipcovers. With the help of a bolster or two my friends and I could luxuriate on them like an ancient Romans. Alas, after forty-five years my increasing inability to keep things minimal has had its sway. I look back on that early, anticipatory emptiness with great nostalgia.
Copyright 2015 by John Willenbecher.