It’s not easy to get inside 190 Bowery, one of NYC’s most cryptic residences. Although it’s prominently located on the corner of Spring and Bowery, everything about the six-story building says, “Go Away.” Heavy iron gates safeguard the thick wooden doors; the first floor windows are opaque; and the stone facade is covered with layers of spray paint and wheat-pasted posters. Most passersby would never guess that the former bank was once a palatial, single-family home where artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Adolph Gottleib rented rooms. Famed street photographer Jay Maisel bought the more than 35,000-square-foot commercial space in 1966 for just over $100,000 when the Bowery was still a derelict neighborhood teeming with creative talent. Over a decade later, Keith Haring would use its exterior as a canvas for his chalk drawings. From the sounds of it, Haring’s “graffiti” was the only kind Maisel liked. “I NEVER washed off any of Keith’s stuff,” wrote the lensman via text. “Keith was the only person who did graffiti in chalk.” (Click gallery above to get right to the photos.)
After years of holding out and establishing 190 Bowery as the area’s last defiant monument to gentrification, the reclusive Maisel offloaded the cultural landmark for $55 million to developer Aby Rosen last year. Then, in early February, something miraculous happened: The doors to the main entrance were flung open. Were the Maisels finally moving out?
With all the activity, I assumed this would be a good day to breach. I showed up on that cold afternoon with ANIMAL photographer Aymann Ismail and pounded on the door. Two young men opened it. We told them we were there to photograph the space. “Are you from R&R?” volunteered one of the gatekeepers. I replied yes. “You were supposed to be here at 2 PM,” he said, scolding me. He told me to reschedule and shut the door.
But I got another opportunity six weeks later, when workers started removing panels covered in street art from the windows. I had heard that a security guard was manning the side door, so I knocked on it. “Where are you from?” he asked. I dropped the R&R name. It worked, and I was in. But I made a classic rookie mistake: I forgot to remove all the photos and videos from my iPhone. After the first 10 or so photos, my phone’s memory was full. Crushed, I walked out.
The following day I returned to redeem myself. The same security guard recognized me and once again I entered the building. I went straight to the roof and started snapping away. I then walked around all six floors, documenting everything I could. However, I forgot to shoot the legendary vault in the basement. Once again, I was compelled to go back.
On Monday afternoon, laborers with mini-dumpsters were walking in and out of the spot, removing stuff. At this point, I didn’t even have to say anything to the security guard; I just walked in. I got my close-ups, pressed my luck, and stayed for another hour. When I got to the fifth floor, a contractor asked me very authoritatively what I was doing in the building. I told him I’m a big fan. “You’re not allowed in here,” he said politely. “It’s now a construction area.” He told one of his guys to escort me out of the building. It turned out to be amazing luck, however, because then we took the ancient elevator down — the last thing on my list to do there.
(Photos/Video: Bucky Turco/ANIMALNewYork)