Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Requiem for Tenants of Carnegie

By JIM DWYER
About New York
The New York Times
August 1, 2007

The process server played his knuckles on the door, fortissimo.

Door to door, knuckle to metal, the rap-rap-rap ringing through the space beyond, not a flicker of hesitancy. And in the eviction papers delivered by the process server, the language was just as decisive, with one exception.

The landlord “prays for a final judgment of eviction, awarding to the petitioner possession of the premises described as follows: all rooms and areas, Studio 1110, in the building known as 881 Seventh Avenue, a k a 154 West 57th Street, New York, New York.”

Those three letters — a k a — are legal shorthand for “also known as.” They mean that the building, 881 Seventh Avenue, has an alias, which is 154 West 57th Street. The building has yet another alias, which was not mentioned: Carnegie Hall.

“It reminded me of the legal papers in ‘A Night at the Opera,’ ” said Andrew Bergman, one of those who received his papers from the process server and not, to his regret, from Groucho Marx. “ ‘The party of the first part shall be known as the party of the first part.’ ”

For more than a century, artists and performers and musicians have nested, unnoticed but in plain sight, directly above Carnegie Hall in tower studios built by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Some artists actually lived there; others used the space to write scores or choreograph dances or practice for concerts. Now, the last 50 of these tenants are being evicted, a process that began two weeks ago. The trustees of Carnegie Hall say they need the space for educational programs, rehearsals and backstage areas.

This progress, though, comes at the same price as the general prosperity of the city: wiping out another of the last few pockets of Manhattan where people of modest or moderate means could occupy a few hundred square feet without going bankrupt.

The pianist and composer Donald Shirley, now 80, says he “came to New York in 1953 for two weeks” and has “been here ever since.” He has a small but grand studio in one of the Carnegie towers, where he has lived for 54 years.

Mr. Bergman, a screenwriter and filmmaker, has worked in the studios for 25 years.

“I don’t have to be in that building,” he said. “But I love that building. When I moved in 25 years ago, I was next door to a ballet studio; it was like a Degas painting. Wynn Handman was teaching actors — he’s still there, they served his papers on his 80th birthday.

“Brando, who I later worked with, had lived on my floor,” Mr. Bergman continued. “Marilyn Monroe took acting lessons there, Lucille Ball took voice. It’s a great feeling of an artistic community. If you’re a writer, it’s great. You can’t get that in a building of lawyers.”

THE music hall was built by Andrew Carnegie in 1890, and the towers, including studios with double-height ceilings, were added a few years later. The property was sold by his family in 1925.

With the development of Lincoln Center in the late 1950s, it appeared that Carnegie Hall and the towers were going to be demolished for commercial development. The violinist Isaac Stern led a public campaign, and the city bought the buildings in 1960. They are leased to the Carnegie Hall Corporation, and its trustees have decided to gut the towers, at a cost estimated at $150 million to $200 million.

The trustees notified the tenants of the plan at the first possible moment, to give them time to move, said Synneve Carlino, a spokeswoman for the corporation. A lawyer for the tenants, Arlene F. Boop, says that when the city leased the hall to the corporation, the terms included language that might protect the current tenants. Ms. Carlino said there was no requirement to rent the space.

Carnegie Hall doesn’t have the money yet for its mighty renovation effort, but it has the moment. New York floats on jets of cash. Once named for a single magnate, Carnegie Hall now has spaces and subdivisions called Zankel, Weil, Kaplan, Rohatyn, Shorin. Just as teenagers sneak into train yards to spray-paint their tags on subway cars, the fabulously rich are queued to put their names on great works. Philanthropy is both an expression of love for humanity, and the graffiti of wealth.

881 Seventh Avenue a k a 154 West 57th Street a k a Carnegie Hall is in the market for yet another alias.

E-mail: dwyer@nytimes.com

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