Volume 74, Number 45 | March 16 - 22, 2005

Forrest “Frosty” Myers’s Soho public artwork, “The Wall,” below left, is at the center of a federal court battle. Above, Myers in his Brooklyn studio.

Hard to read the writing on the wall in ‘Wall’ case

By Ronda Kaysen

You might call it a wall-to-wall mess down at City Hall. A federal judge hearing the case of “The Wall,” a decades-old art installation in Soho, has asked lawyers from both sides to file additional briefs, delaying a decision until at least next month.

“Now it’s just horrible that this thing will go on for another month,” Forrest “Frosty” Myers, the installation’s artist, told The Villager in a telephone interview. “It was terribly disheartening…. We left the trial in more of a vague state than we came in.”

The trial is the latest manifestation of an eight-year-old legal dispute over whether 42 beams affixed in 1973 to a blue-painted exterior wall on the north side of 599 Broadway can be permanently removed from the landmarked district.

The dispute pits the condo owners, Soho International Arts Condominium, who would like to replace the artwork with income-generating advertisements, against the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and Myers, who insist “The Wall” is a site-specific piece of artwork protected under the city’s landmark laws.

After two days of testimony last week and closing arguments, Judge Deborah Batts requested up to 25 pages of additional briefs from both sides by March 31.

“I wish she had said no more than 10 [pages],” joked Richard Altman, Myers’ pro-bono lawyer, who was surprised when Batts requested another round of paperwork. Altman is not concerned about meeting the looming deadline, however: “Lawyers always think of something to say.”

Jeffery Braun, the lawyer for the condo owners, suspects Batts will rule fairly quickly after she collects the next round of briefs. Regardless, he has taken a fatalistic approach to the waiting game: “It’s in the judge’s hands now,” he said, although he too is preparing legal briefs.

Both sides are arguing that the other owns the beleaguered artwork, which was temporarily removed in 2002 to restore the actual wall beneath. If the judge rules that Soho International Arts owns the wall, then the condo owners are required by city law to maintain the landmark affixed to it. But if the artist or Doris Freedman, the late patron who commissioned the work, is deemed “The Wall”’s rightful owner, then the city cannot force the building’s owners to maintain someone else’s property.

“What’s perplexing is [that] the judge didn’t just throw the argument out,” Myers said of the condo owners’ claim. “It makes me nervous. Maybe she wants to go the other way.”

Myers’s lawyer has a different outlook on the judge’s ruling: “Who knows” how Batts will rule, Altman said, adding that the trial will not be the final word on “The Wall.” Regardless of who wins, the case will likely be appealed. “It is very clear that this is not the end,” he said.

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