Art and capital have a long and complicated history, but rarely do they combine so problematically as in the figure of Aby Rosen. In 2005, the controversial art collector and co-founder of RFR Holdings told the New York Times that life is about “melting art and commerce all together.” That same year, he purchased a 117-year-old warehouse building in TriBeCa for $16.5 million that was once home to John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, and Marisol Escobar. In late July of 2014, the New York City Department of Buildings approved his plans to replace the building with 11 stories of luxury condos.
Paul Pagk, Jaime Vinas, and Jacqueline Miro, a group of residents leading efforts to preserve the building at 67 Vestry, point out that there are still a number of working artists and many more long-term residents who will be forced out if Rosen’s development plans succeed. In this instance, commerce does not seem to be “melting together” with art, but displacing it.
Rosen is featured in ARTnews’s 2014 list of top collectors for his stockpile of Warhols and works by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. “If he likes art so much,” asks Pagk, “then why did he kick out Bob Wilson?” The director and playwright Robert Wilson was one of the tenants who was unable to renew his lease after Rosen purchased the building.
Pagk, Miro, and Vinas have clear personal investments in the future of 67 Vestry, but they argue that, as a vital part of TriBeCa’s 1970s art renaissance and as a piece of architectural history, the warehouse merits landmark protection. But, so far, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (L.P.C.), the body that will decide the fate of 67 Vestry, is unconvinced that the building warrants this protection. Whatever the building’s status, it is hard to deny the criticism that TriBeCa is losing its romantic past to unsympathetic developers and that the L.P.C. could take greater steps to preserve that history.
The building was originally designed by Frederick Dinkelberg—a key architect of the Flatiron Building—as an A&P warehouse in 1897. Pagk delights in the brickwork’s subtle embellishment that he contrasts with the generic style of the condos that now fill much of TriBeCa. The architect Frank Helmle capped 67 Vestry with two additional floors in 1910 in a lighter, cream colored brick that makes the warehouse instantly recognizable. Another A&P warehouse in Jersey City, built in 1900, was granted landmark status despite its more recent construction.
After hearing appeals, Community Board 1 (C.B.1) unanimously recommended the warehouse for individual landmark status or for inclusion in the bordering Tribeca North Historic District in late March. The L.P.C. stated in a June letter that, although the building “did not altogether lack merit,” alterations disqualified it for individual landmark designation. C.B.1 filed an appeal for reconsideration. Despite their efforts, and despite a MoveOn.org petition with over 1,600 signatures, RFR has already been granted demolition rights for the interior of the building.
The L.P.C. has been criticized for inaction in the past. In another Rosen development controversy, the writer Tom Wolfe stated in a New York Times Op-ed that the L.P.C. “has been de facto defunct for going on 20 years.” He went on to call Rosen’s proposed building at 980 Madison Avenue a “Mondo Condo glass box.” Rosen creatively dismissed Wolfe’s article as “anti-Semitic.” Despite its theatricality, the Rosen and Wolfe drama restages the relative helplessness of artists and residents who want protect their TriBeCa history but cannot find space to complain about it in the New York Times.
While the group is determined to persuade the L.P.C. to grant landmark status to 67 Vestry, the unreceptiveness of the L.P.C. to community boards and petitions has left other residents less optimistic. Nevertheless, the artist Roland Gebhardt, who has lived in the building since the ’70s, thinks that delaying demolition for as long as possible is still a worthy goal. While their appeals to C.B.1 have hinged on the physical importance of the building, it’s clear that the group thinks TriBeCa’s cultural life is just as vulnerable to development trends.
Miro argues the warehouse attracted diverse “residents [who] have been collectively involved in [ . . . ] opening schools, preserving piers and communal gardens, creating neighborhood associations to care for neglected parks, and opening thriving new businesses.” In other words, the residents at 67 Vestry worked tirelessly to invent a culture for TriBeCa. Unfortunately, she notes that their eagerness to renovate lofts to meet building codes and create a vibrant culture has pathed the way for occupancy permits and high rents. “When the loft tenants become rent stabilized,” she says, the building becomes “an open target for demolition.” Her comments highlight the role that artists have played in steering TriBeCa from a disused industrial area to a cultural hotbed and developer’s dream.
RFR’s website notes that art can enrich “both the urban landscape and the tenant/visitor experience, while maximizing property values and providing a unique identity and visibility for the RFR brand in its core markets.” Perhaps Rosen’s insistence on the fluidity of art and commerce can be instructive. The artists featured in his collection, like Warhol and Koons, were and are savvy, playful exploiters of art’s role as a commodity. Maybe TriBeCa’s cultural pioneers should leverage their ability to “maximize property values” in order hold on to their spaces in New York. Perhaps artists need to negotiate the world of property and business more strategically.
The art that Rosen successfully mixes with commerce is, strictly speaking, already in conversation with the financial world. But what happens to art and culture that is not about money? Is there space for it left in this city?