Volume 17, Number 40 | February 25 - March 3, 2005

Soho ‘Wall’ dispute returns to the courts

By Ronda Kaysen

Photo by Joseph Coshia, Jr.
“The Wall,” a public artwork at the southwest corner of Broadway and Houston St., before it was taken down for repairs in 2002. Building owners want to keep the wall clear for billboard ads rather than bring back the work.
Talk about being up against the wall.

The north wall of 599 Broadway at Houston St. has found itself stuck in the middle of a legal dispute between the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has declared the aluminum bars previously affixed to it a landmark, and the building’s owners, who see the actual wall as a fitting site to tack on lucrative commercial billboards.

Next month, “The Wall” — the aptly named artwork created in 1973 for the physical wall — will have its day in court.

The building’s owners, Soho International Arts Condominium, took steps in 1997 to remove the eight-story-high artwork from its building, insisting that damage to the actual wall was causing leaks to the interior of the property. It also just so happens that leasing out the blank space, located at perhaps the busiest corner of tourist-ridden Soho, could make the owners a pocketful of money — as much as $600,000 a year, says the owners’ lawyer, Jeffrey Braun.

“Our clients have wanted to remove the artwork for years and have been unable to,” said Braun in a telephone interview. “On a gut level they feel this is extremely unfair that they’re forced to carry this obsolete stuff on their wall.”

Many people, including the city, see the artwork — 42 aluminum bars bolted to 42 steel braces, painted green against a blue background — as a far cry from obsolete. Instead, they insist The Wall is a symbol of Soho’s colorful past as an artists’ haven.

“This work of art happened there because of the social forces that transformed this area into a capital of contemporary art,” Mark A. Silberman, legal counsel for L.P.C., said in a telephone interview. “This art was done by somebody that was part of that movement and it’s reflective of that movement.”

In 2002, L.P.C. gave the owners permission to temporarily remove “The Wall” — on the condition that they would restore it — in order to fix the damaged wall. They have no intention of putting it back, and have taken the matter to federal court.

For the artist, Forrest “Frosty” Myers, the conflict is very cut and dry: “This is a case of art versus money,” he told Downtown Express at a Feb. 17 fundraiser to save his artwork.

Standing at more than 6 ft. tall, Myers is reminiscent of an Al Hirschfeld illustration with gray hair perched above his head as if in the midst of its own private joke with his eyebrows, which are as bushy and overgrown has his mustache. The soft-spoken artist, donning baby blue patent leather shoes, seemed baffled more than angry by the dispute.

“I’m always surprised that this artwork means so much to people,” he said, sitting in a quiet corner of philanthropist Henry Buehl’s imposing loft, 150 friends and art fans talking art and landmarking nearby.

Myers, at the time a Broome St. resident, constructed “The Wall” with the help of Doris Freedman, founder of City Walls, which eventually morphed into the Public Art Fund. A harbinger of the battle to come, Freedman proclaimed in a letter 30 years ago that the three-year battle with the city to secure the permits to extend the bars over a public street were “Kafka-esque.”

At first, residents were skeptical of Myers’ artwork. But over the years, it became a cornerstone of Soho. “It’s become world famous without my help,” he said.

“It is a very important work of art and it would be a great loss to the city,” said Laurie Beckelman, L.P.C. commissioner during former Mayor David Dinkins’ administration.

According to Myers, “The Wall,” which neither the artist nor the building owners claim to own, is worth somewhere between $8 million and $10 million. The building owners, he insists, “are acting like they really don’t know the notoriety of this work.” Myers claims the condo owners own “The Wall,” which makes the art part of the building and subject to city landmark laws. The tenants claim Myers owns the art which they say gives them the right not to put it back up.

Braun, the condo’s attorney, says Soho is not an advertisement-free zone, so there is no reason why the owners of 599 Broadway cannot reap the same sort of profits from their property as their other Houston St. neighbors do.

“There’s a whole history of commercial signage on the walls on Houston St.,” he said. “All these other buildings have signage, and that signage is very lucrative…. [The owners] are being denied the revenue that other buildings have.”

The building’s owners did, however, earn $300,000 last year from signage on its street-level scaffolding, according to court documents. But the scaffolding income is temporary, Braun noted, and not a permanent source of income for the owners. “The judge could order them to put the artwork back up and take the scaffolding down,” he said, although he hopes that will not be the outcome.

The actual wall, which has been the source of so much tension over ownership and profit, is valuable, in part, because of the art that shrouds it, Silberman says.

“Landmark preservation has not only preserved Soho, but it’s transformed it into an incredibly vibrant economic area,” he said. “The irony is that is part of the reason why the advertising is worth so much: historic preservation preserves and in many cases increases property values.”

In September, Judge Deborah A. Batts dismissed the owners’ initial claim — that the artwork’s existence was a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. On March 15, she will hear whether “The Wall,” among other things, violates the owners’ Fifth Amendment right that the government cannot claim private property for public use without compensation.


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