Bringing Down the House


Another boho landmark is about to disappear into the insatiable maw of New York University.

Though probably best known for its gallery, Judson House was bohemian in the broadest sense of that term: a working or living space through much of the 20th century for people alienated from middle-class values, artistic, political, and spiritual. It was backyard and anteroom to Judson Memorial Church. “More than a building, it’s the spiritus mundi,” says senior minister Peter Laarman. “We regret that we can’t keep this building going, but the spirit of hospitality and risk-taking behind it, we do want to keep going.” The church will get space within the new NYU law school—”ours in perpetuity” says Laarman—to continue its programs.

The wrecking ball will swing, probably within the next couple of months, obliterating the old row of tenements that became a single red brick edifice after its exterior was renovated by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White a hundred years ago. The new law school will also take Judson’s brick courtyard and then the rest of the block along West 3rd Street from Thompson to Sullivan, including a house once inhabited by Edgar Allan Poe.

Tomorrow through Sunday (July 27-30) Peculiar Works Project moves into the vacated space for one last fling. PWP specializes in site-specific work, producing the biannual “Big Art in Small Places” performance marathon. Their Judson House Project is a refined shrink-to-fit version of that extravaganza. Audiences will tour the building, encountering dance, video, puppets, and installations from gallery to garret. In the apartment where infamous Off-Broadway composer (and Judson arts minister) Al Carmines once lived, Peculiar Works will re-create one of his legendary cast parties. The apartment was known as the Den of Vice when Carmines occupied it in the ’60s and ’70s.

At first, PWP hoped to bring back the somebodies who’d worked at Judson House when they were nobodies. That list would include everyone from Maria Irene Fornes to Yoko Ono and Jim Dine. Since PWP usually works with emerging artists, however, they decided to stick with them, and Laarman encouraged that, because “it points toward the future.” It also preserves the House tradition. After all, when he had his first one-man show at Judson Gallery, no one knew who Claes Oldenburg was.

Judson holds church services in the courtyard every summer, but that will end on July 30. Elly Dickason, who’s been part of the congregation since the ’60s, expects “a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth” at that last service. The congregation is not happy to part with this humble space. Elly and her husband, Jerry Dickason, spent 18 months researching the site, gathering interviews or articles from 48 people who either lived or worked there, and they’ve edited a book the church will publish this fall called Remembering Judson House.

Elly Dickason reports that the tenements were built in the 1840s and purchased by Edward Judson in 1899 “as an investment.” When Judson dedicated his church on the south side of Washington Square in 1890, he envisioned it as a liminal zone where the upper-crust folks on the north side of the Square would mingle with the impoverished Italian immigrants living to the south. Fat chance. Although John D. Rockefeller donated money, and society architect Stanford White designed the church, the classes wanted no part of the masses.

To serve the church’s neighbors, Judson set up a medical dispensary, cooking classes, English classes. He built a gym in the church basement. He supplied cold water from a fountain on Thompson Street. “It was always understood to be a church that would serve people’s material needs,” says Laarman, “not just their spiritual needs.”

Judson House became part of that vision in 1922 when a doctor named Eleanor Campbell turned it into a health clinic. One story about her everyone seems to remember is that she put cribs on the roof for neighborhood babies who suffered from rickets, so they could soak up vitamin D.

After the Health Center moved to Soho in 1950, the church brought in students to live at Judson House for little or no rent in exchange for community service. The central Village was changing in the ’50s, with the advent of Beat culture. As more artists moved to the neighborhood, says Dickason, “the church felt that they really had to reach out to that community, and the only thing they could do was give them space.” The associate minister at the time, a “semi-Beatnik” named Bud Scott, opened Judson Gallery in 1958 with artist Marc Ratliff, who quickly brought in Oldenburg, Dine, and Tom Wesselmann.

Here some of the first Happenings were staged in 1960, in a program Oldenburg and Dine put together called Ray Gun Spex. Allen Kaprow, Dick Higgins, Robert Whitman, and Al Hansen also performed. The gallery closed for a few years in 1962, but it had sparked Judson’s commitment to experimental art, a commitment crucial to the early history of postmodern dance and Off-Broadway theater. This was a period, after all, when there was no nonprofit art world. Judson Church served as Artists Space, the Kitchen, and Franklin Furnace all rolled into one.

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, artist/curator Jon Hendricks arrived to do his alternative service as a conscientious objector. He reopened the gallery, giving shows to such groundbreakers as Carolee Schneemann, Meredith Monk, and Ono. One of the Destruction Art events he curated became a legend in certain circles. Out in the courtyard, Hermann Nitsch performed a quasi-religious ritual over a dead lamb, Lil Picard burned images of war, and Bici Forbes invited spectators to hack at a block of ice surrounded by raw eggs. Ralph Ortiz promised one of his ritual chicken slaughters, but someone “liberated” the birds. Then, everyone moved into the church for Charlotte Moorman’s performance of Nam June Paik’s One for Violin. Moorman was to raise a violin slowly over her head, then smash it. But on that night, a spectator tried to stop her and she smashed him over the head.

Small destructions—art destructions—can be interfered with. The one set in motion by the Disney of Downtown, NYU, probably can’t be.

A quick tour through Judson House with Ralph Lewis, Catherine Porter, and Barry Rowell of Peculiar Works makes it clear why the church felt it had a choice here between gut renovation and plain old gut. The building still has gas lamp fixtures in the upper hallways, narrow stairways, inadequate electricity, and troubled plumbing. It’s a firetrap.

Trying to address the crisis around runaway kids back in the ’60s, Judson housed them here on the third floor, and the kids trashed the rooms, which haven’t been used since. The graffiti’s as legible as yesterday’s news. “Death Is Out There,” reads one profundity.

Porter says of the last hurrah PWP plans for Judson House: “We’re approaching it as a celebration of the legacy, but the sadness is undeniable.”

Tour reservations: 212-529-3626, ext. 4