Volume 74, Number 54 | May 18 - 24 , 2005

Effort to save Soho public artwork hits a wall in court

By Ronda Kaysen

The northern wall of a Soho building is staying just where it is: in storage, unless the city wants to fit the bill to tack it back up, a judge ruled last week.

“The Wall” sculpture in Soho, before it was taken down, allegedly for repairs, in 2002.
The wall in question isn’t just any wall — it’s “The Wall,” a minimalist aluminum piece of artwork that festooned a Houston St. building with its bright blue backdrop for more than 30 years. In 1997, the board of managers of Soho International Arts, the condo owners of the 599 Houston St. building, embarked on a crusade to replace the Soho relic with lucrative advertising billboards.

Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Deborah A. Batts ruled that the condo owners do not own the artwork and — under the U.S. Constitution — the city cannot force them to maintain it. A long-defunct organization, City Walls Inc., which commissioned the artwork in 1973 for $2,000, still owns the work, she ruled.

“We’re very pleased, very gratified,” said Jeffrey Braun, the lawyer for the condo owners. “We felt for a long time that we were being treated unfairly by the city and we feel that our position has been vindicated by the court.”

In 2002, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission gave the owners permission to temporarily remove “The Wall” — on the condition that they would restore it — in order to fix the water-damaged wall, which lies within the Soho Cast-Iron Historic District.

Under Batts’s latest ruling, however, if the city orders the artwork restored, the city must pay the owners fair compensation, which in all likelihood would be a hefty bill. The wall could generate upwards of $600,000 annually in advertising income, Braun estimates. “It might be more,” he mused.

Advocates for “The Wall” have long maintained that the struggle is one of raw capitalism versus public art. “It’s another example of greed and commercialism chasing art out of Soho,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance and a longtime supporter of “The Wall.” The artwork, he added, was the last of its kind on Houston St. “It’s really a sad day.”

The city intends to appeal the decision, insisting that a defunct organization cannot possibly own the artwork. “The decision is factually and legally wrong and we’re going to be appealing it,” said Virginia Waters, counsel for the city.

Calling the decision “thoroughly depressing,” “The Wall” ’s artist, Forrest “Frosty” Myers, was most disappointed by the judge’s reading of his artwork. “Frankly, I don’t think [Judge Batts] understood the artwork and why so many people were fighting for it,” he said. “I have a feeling it just baffled her.” Myers estimates his artwork is now worth in the neighborhood of $12 million.

Lawyers for the city and Myers are hoping the case will have a different effect on judges for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where it will go next — its last stop before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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