A Tribeca Pioneer’s Tale

courtesy John WillenbecherOn 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!

Ernie by Tony Mendoza

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.

20 Comments

  1. fantastic Johni!

    with my then young daughter christine, had moved into a top floor loft at 124 chambers st. in 1958. near the hudson but devoid of anyone at night with absolutely no food shopping in the area it was bright and beautiful.there were no schools nearby. there were only office workers in the day but at night musicians could be heard. theloneous monk played in a loft somewhere even further downtown. i would often walk across the brooklyn bridge at 6.00 a.m and and a jazz trombonist of some repute would be practicing in the middle of the bridge. bliss however was shortly found out by the dilettantes and in 1973 my building was bought by some wealthy young people who were playing artists at the time and i was evicted. no one had leases at that time. i moved but it was sad to see the real estate changes so damage the precious and precarious climate of this city.

    dorothea rockburne.

  2. A striking piece of memoir writing.

  3. What a wonderful memoir John. It really captures the change in the neighborhood and brought back many fond memories for me!

  4. Thanks for such a great account of your journey from Columbus Avenue to West Broadway. And what a lot of wonderful information — art historical and otherwise — along the way!

  5. What a wonderful first 45 years! And the best is yet to come. Happy New Year, John.

    Best,

    Aldis

  6. And I bought you a cream soda once at Canal and Broadway in 1980. You still owe me 75 cents for that. And I think I may have paid your lunch at the Dairy Bar at Grand and Broadway also. Gimme three bucks, and we’ll call it even.

    • Dave’s Corner had authentic, delicious egg cremes. South East corner of Canal and Broadway. And a window opened on to the street so you didn’t have to go into the dinner to get your egg creme, you could just hang out on the corner. And across the street there was a hardware store run by gay guys, and they knew all about tools. They were so helpful and adorable.

  7. What a great piece– Thank you for
    Calling up that time- walking around
    now I can still feel it there – it’s just cloaked
    in something unfamiliar

  8. John got it right , I remember those wonderful days when the kids as i called them came in for the 50 cent special before 11 oclock . they are the stars of the art world today.I am very lucky to have some of there work ,having traded food for art ,most of all fond memories I am still in touch with some of them Too many to name Serra,Glass. rothenberg,John, Kass ,Hillman ,Hardy Close,It was a wonderful time in my life Joan Pantzer

  9. oh yes the seane ,the seane the seane in nyc ,the heroic seane came to a end right around the time your talking about art is a individual and very lonely profession …best wishes to all ,,

  10. I think you may have known my friend Lillian Concordia, who lived in that double building in the early 1970’s. I moved downtown on February 1, 1976, when I was 26, to the sixth floor of One Hudson Street, the eastern half of which was occupied by the Jos. Schaffner Printing company. All that was in the space was the former tenant’s badly hand-crafted bed, some dead, full-size trees in pots, and desiccated tubes of paint. On the first morning there, I woke up and was terrified to see what I thought was a wolf staring at me through the windows. It was Norman Kantor’s dog, Woofer, who prowled the rooftops of the buildings next door. I have photos from that time, looking west on Chambers at the empty beach, before Battery Park City existed. Countless great memories, indeed.

  11. As a new-comer to New York (I arrived in 1986) I’m honoured and thrilled that you would share this with me. Your unique biography is an extraordinary insight into what it was like to be an artist, 45 years ago in the greatest city in the world. Thank you!!

  12. Dear John: What a treat! To think I was there. Bravi! Mille fois mercies. Love, Naomi

  13. An amazing history. .. happy to hear you are still there! !

  14. Thank you for posting! I too have a similar story from 158 Franklin Street. Does it make sense to collect our stories into a book? I think yes. Who else has a wonderful tale to tell. Come forth, Oh Pioneers!

  15. As a long time resident of 158 Franklin Street friend of Geraldine Pontius,
    I’m happy to share my stories of commercial leases, j51, private carters, landlords who became movie actors, mosquito nets, burning wood pallets for heat and moths!

  16. Much interested by this amazing history and memories of past!
    I remember a very good evening in your home at Christmas 2005…..yet!
    A very good new year John!

  17. Hi John,
    You might not know this, but a friend and I, both architects, were residents of the top floor at 145 West Broadway from the winter of 1969 until June 1970, which we rented from the owners of the Odeon cafeteria. We took the paint studio, sanded the floors, changed the walls and made a beautiful loft space, which we sold the fittings for to a television producer. We loved the space, which must have been just above you, and did a great job creating it. I subsequently lived in Europe for almost 30 years and now live in Hudson, NY. I visit the city and always stop across the street of 145 to have coffee.
    And, by the way, it is on the SouthEast corner of West Broadway and Thomas Street.
    I hope we can meet up one day soon,
    Best,
    Tad Mann
    http://www.atmann.net and atmann@atmann.net

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