Volume 78 - Number 44 / April 8 - 14, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Patrick Hedlund

This Prince St. mural by Richard Haas depicting Soho cast-iron architecture could be covered up by a developer who hopes to construct a building on the current one-story store site at 110 Prince St.

Trompe l’oeil muralist warily eyes new Soho project

By Patrick Hedlund

A famous Soho mural vandalized by graffiti last summer might be facing another threat — this time from a developer looking to construct a building next door that would effectively mute the 1975 artwork.

The landmark trompe l’oeil mural, painted by artist Richard Haas on what was the blank east wall of 112 Prince St. near the corner of Greene St., depicts the building’s cast-iron facade and has become a celebrated piece of public art in the neighborhood.

Last September graffiti taggers let loose on the mural, covering the bottom portion of the five-story-tall piece with spray paint and prompting a response from Haas on the need to take action.

The point could be moot, however, if the developer decides to build a new structure on the site of the neighboring one-story property. Camper Shoes, which has a store at the corner of Prince and Wooster Sts., wants to demolish the existing single-story building at 110 Prince St. to construct a new headquarters, which, under zoning law, could rise as high as the adjacent six-story cast-iron building bearing Haas’s mural.

Any building more than one story tall would at least partially block the artwork, if not cover it completely.

“What’s going to happen to the mural?” asked Soho Alliance Director Sean Sweeney, noting that his organization would not be opposed to the scale of the new building, only its effects on the mural. “Should we go extremely NIMBY?” he contemplated.

Camper Shoes’ attorney planned to meet with the Alliance last week.

One possible solution would be for Haas to paint a new piece on an available nearby wall; but the artist explained that the climate has changed more than three decades since the original work went up — leading to hundreds more by Haas worldwide.

“The irony, of course, is this was the premier piece that led to tens of thousands of pieces all over the world,” said Haas. The artist noted he encountered a similar situation at the Fontainbleau Hotel in Miami, where another of his trompe l’oeil murals was lost with the hotel’s demolition, despite staunch community opposition. “It is something that in most cultures would be preserved, period,” he stated.

Haas added he is open to the possibility of painting another mural in a different location, but that available space and the city’s use of uncovered walls for advertisements might present a challenge.

“Absolutely,” he replied when asked about doing another Downtown piece. However, he pointed out, “There are very few walls of that type that are still around that are highly visible.”

The building at 112 Prince St. is afforded protections by being in Soho’s Cast-Iron Historic District, and the mural “would be treated as a significant feature of that building,” said Lisi de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission. “The commission would consider it in its deliberations over the appropriateness of any proposed structure for that site” at 110 Prince St., she said.

The Alliance believes the developer would have no trouble getting permission to demolish the one-story “taxpayer” structure — an action which nevertheless requires approval by the L.P.C. because of its location in the historic district. However, de Bourbon added, “It’s not necessarily a done deal. The commission can be quite exacting about what qualifies as appropriate for a historic district.”

Regardless, Haas believes it will take a mighty effort to protect his mural from the forces of real estate.

“The city would have to get involved proactively in seeing the value of that piece,” Haas said. “I’ve never seen a developer yet who didn’t go the full distance.”

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