Ying Zhu: Can you please tell us a little about the history of the Carnegie Studios and some of the artists who lived and worked there?
Josef Astor: The history is extraordinary for many reasons. The first is that almost no one knows about it. The studios were not part of the original concert hall. The concert hall was built in 1891 by Andrew Carnegie, and designed by architect William Burnet Tuthill. In 1895, Andrew Carnegie in conjunction with the founder of The Art Students League, Howard Russell Butler, got together and decided to put artist studios on top. Andrew Carnegie obviously wanted to make sure there would be an income to support the hall and at the same time he wanted to provide a place to house a creative community. With influence from Howard Russell Butler and designed by renowned architect Henry J. Hardenberg (architect of the Dakota Apartments and the Plaza Hotel), no wondered the studios looked like artist ateliers! Many had 20-foot ceilings with special skylights and windows that provided good natural light for painters and photographers. Some studios had beautiful sprung wood floors for dancing, some individual studios had perfect acoustics for musicians. Each studio was unique and no two were alike. There were 170 of them, which was shocking, because most people who walked by Carnegie Hall didn't see anything. They were tucked away in the back; there was a south tower and a north tower, and there was a block of studios on the roof, which all can't be seen from the street.
And as for the artists who lived and worked there, Enrico Caruso made his first recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) in studio 826 because the acoustics in that studio was so beautiful. The American Academy of Dramatic Arts was one of the first tenants, and Cecil B. DeMille was a student there in the turn of the century; we have a picture of him in the film. Isadora Duncan lived and rehearsed new dance works there. Marlon Brando lived in one of the studios. Agnes de Mille choreographed "Oklahoma" in studio 61; can you imagined how big that studio was? Studio 61 was the most famous ballet studio in all of New York City. Leonard Bernstein was there, Marilyn Monroe, Skitch Henderson, Jerome Robbins, Don Shirley, Bill Cunningham, a photographer for the New York Times, the list goes on and on, there is a roster of tenant artists at the end of the film.
YZ: What was the selection process and what was required for someone to get a space in the Carnegie Studios?
JA: That's a very interesting question, I came late, I moved in 1985, and I was one of the newer people. There weren't that many new tenants being signed on. The older tenants told me that there used to be a very strict quota system. I think that in the beginning, it was arranged so that there was a balance of businesses and artists, in another word, yes there can be businesses, but there also had to have a quota of artists. As they raised the rent year after year, it was harder for artists to afford these spaces. So towards the end, the tenants were architects, graphic designers, and art related businesses.
YZ: How did you find out about this available space?
JA: [chuckles] I'm only laughing because this was the question I asked everybody in my film: How did you get to Carnegie Hall? You know the joke, practice, practice, practice. I asked people, "How did you find your studio?" Almost everybody said that they were drawn to the building by various sort of introductions or "forces." I found mine by just being in a bar during happy hour down in the East Village. I was talking to someone who I've never met in my life, who told me that he was moving out of his space. Sometimes, Carnegie Hall would put out advertisements for a vacant studio; one of the tenants in my film says that she found her studio from an ad in the "Village Voice," the ad said: "Live and work in a Carnegie Studio."
YZ: What was it like to live in such a unique community full of artists and musicians?
JA: I had been accustomed to living downtown in the East Village, and when I moved to midtown, I had no friends, and nowhere to go and nothing to do except for do my work. And what I didn't realize at first was that I wasn't just renting a studio, I was being adopted by this community of artists in the building. And that was the real surprise and bonus for having a studio there.
One of my dear friends from the building is Donald Shirley. He is a concert pianist, played many many solo concerts, as he puts it, "downstairs," don't you love that? [smiles] He was up in his studio and said, "I like my Carnegie studio, because you know I play downstairs in the main hall and I come back upstairs to sit in my bathtub and drink Champagne by myself." [chuckles] He played with Duke Ellington and Duke Ellington's orchestra in the main hall; it was just extraordinary! He is in his eighties now, but he was up there with his Steinway Grand, he named "Black Bessie," since the early 1950s.
I know I wasn't there during the hay day, but there were still lots of activities in the studios. There were ballerinas running around in the hallways on my floor, in their tutus, and there was this massive pipe organ in the studio next to me; I talk about this in the film, this was one of my first recollections of being in the studio. I heard this pipe organ one day and I thought, "Oh my Lord! I realized my studio is on top of the concert hall, but I didn't think I could hear the concerts below!" I was not hearing the concerts below; it was a woman next door, with a pipe organ. I only found out later when she asked me to change a light bulb for her. Her name was Emilia Del Terzo, and I nearly died when I saw the organ; it was massive! She was a famous organist and a protégé of Pietro Yon; he was the organist in the St. Patrick's Cathedral. This was his studio, and after he died, she took over the space.
The community was full of creative souls, and eccentrics, it was inspiring to be in such a place!
YZ: And now it's all gone! How did this happen?
JA: Sanford Weill, a billionaire and the former head of Citigroup, is the chairman of the board of trustees in Carnegie Hall. His son in law was appointed as the architect for the studio renovations. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the renovation plans to demolished the interior spaces, including the rooftop skylights.
In the late 1950's, the entire building was threatened with demolition when the New York Philharmonic defected to the new Lincoln Center. And when it was saved, thanks to the protests organized by the studio tenants, the city bought it and a charter was put in place in 1960 to insure nothing would ever happen to this historic building again. The Carnegie building itself is owned by the City of New York, not Carnegie Hall. But the City Council never held a public hearing.
YZ: Ah...the city owns it. How can you fight against that!
JA: Exactly! And here is an important point to bring up. There were the elderly rent-control tenants who were paying close to the rent they were paying when they moved in, but the other tenants were paying very close to market rate. Many people thought, "Why should we have any sympathy for all these artists who are being subsidized by Carnegie Hall?" They assumed something that was absolutely not! There were only seven tenants who were subsidized by Carnegie Hall, and the rest of us were not.
By the time I moved there, of the 170 artist studios that were original built, there were only about 45 studios occupied by artists, so the numbers were greatly reduced. People thought it was a natural evolution, "Oh well, it had its time, I guess it's over now. There were only a few people and they are old now. It was going to disappear anyway, so who cares..." That's absolutely incorrectly! It was a definite, deliberate plan to diminish the artist community, repossess the spaces, and convert them for some other use; this goes against the charter and it was an illegal act as far as I'm concerned.
And it wasn't just about us; it was also about the history of these studios and the historical architecture. If they had moved all of us out and kept the spaces, this would be a very different story.
YZ: I'm so sad that they demolished those beautiful skylights and replaced it with a plain roof garden and canopy.
JA: It was criminal, if you ask me. I attended the Landmark preservation hearings; this is a landmark building and they had to approve everything. When we saw their presentation, all our worst fears were realized. The man started out by saying, "Andrew Carnegie always wanted a roof garden."
YZ: Did that man have any proof?
JA: He just showed buildings from that period that had roof gardens.
YZ: That doesn't mean that Andrew Carnegie wanted one!
JA: Thank you! If he did, he would have built one, but he built artist studios!
They were bending the history in order to convince the landmark commissioner.
The man who gave the presentation, they called him a historian, we called him a lobbyist, he was from a firm who worked with all the fortune 500 companies, and if those companies wanted to get around landmark rules for construction projects, they go to this firm. The man also pointed at the skylights, and said, "These are not originally materials." The skylights were there for over 100 years, but they were renovated in 1986 with new glass and new hardware without changing the structure. But the man managed to made it sound like the skylights were not original, or historical.
It was only the shell that they were concerned with, not the spirit, nor the history. And one terrible loophole they had was this: the skylights can't be viewed by pedestrians on the streets, and therefor not important.
We were abled to get signed letters from world-class architects like Robert A. M. Stern and a few others who said this is absolute blasphemy and it should not be done, but the commissioner didn't listen.
YZ: [Sigh] What was your studio like and how did that space and being in that environment contribute to your art?
JA: I was so excited to find this space; it was a dream studio. I didn't think anything like that existed here. It was more of a European style; it looked just like a set on La Bohème! It had 20-foot high ceilings with a pitched roof, and a skylight facing north, and a living loft, and a little stair. It was really like being on a set of an opera, I couldn't believe it!
At the time, the subjects I was photographing were not celebrities. I was doing portraits, portraits of people in the arts; I was photographing writes, actors, dancers, and musicians. When they came to my studio, they just felt comfortable. They felt that they were in a creative environment that was down to earth and stimulating. It wasn't a white cube, like most modern photo studios. The special responses I got from artists, and the type of portraits I was able to capture in that studio, I don't think would have happened in another place, so it was an ideal space for me.
YZ: Why did they call you "Birdman?"
JA: [smile] The tenants in the Carnegie Studios came to call me 'Birdman' because I was always with my parrot Zoltan. It was a rite of passage in a way for a tenant in the Carnegie Studios - there was the Merry Widow of Carnegie Hall ( Jeanne Beauvais ) and the Duchess of Carnegie Hall ( Editta Sherman) and The Phantom of Carnegie Hall, and now Birdman.
YZ: When did you start filming, and what inspired this project in the beginning?
JA: Another perfect question and here is why, people who have seen the film asked me, "When did you decide to make a film about this terrible evictions of Carnegie Artist Studios?" I said, "I never decided to make that film."
When the woman, the organist next door had died, she was in her 90s, I felt a terrible regret that I had never taken her picture. I wasn't filming back then, but I wished that I had taken a still picture of her and her pipe organ. I felt bad about it and thought, well, there is still quite a bit of activity going on here, and maybe I should start documenting some of it. It didn't feel like the studios were ever going away, it looked like a place that was intended to be there forever, so I didn't even think about that. But it's a photographer's impulse I suppose, to preserve something that feels like it was on the course of fading away. That's why I started filming.
YZ: You've captured some intimate moments with these artists, how did you get people to forget that they were in front of a camera?
JA: It was 2001 when I started casually documenting, and it wasn't until 2007 that we got the eviction notices. By that time, people were accustomed to see a camera there all the time. The responses you see in the film are very genuine and everyone is very open and spontaneous because I am filming the story while it's happening, and I was a part of this story.
From the point of technique, this is what they call direct cinema, meaning that this is not the typical style of most documentaries, which is mostly done in hind sight, or a reporter comes into a situation and they do interviews and shoot some footage, this film was filmed from the inside and not from an outsider's point of view, by somebody who was also getting evicted. I felt like I had a very privileged and unique access to the people, and they were my friends and they trusted me. Because it was not a happy situation or a comfortable time for most of those people when I was filming the eviction, you can imagine; I did need their trust. And at the same time, I think they felt that this was an important story to be told and that they wanted their voices to be heard. Many of them told me that there were times when they struggle to keep their studios, but this time it felt different, this felt like the last fight.
YZ: Were there spaces, dramas, events, and people you wish you had filmed or would have filmed if you knew the studios would be demolished one day?
JA: Well, there were some amazing stories I have heard from few of the older tenants that I wish we had footages of. Here is one from Bill Cunningham, I was in his studio and he said: "Josef, it used to be like a big college dorm, there were things going on all night long with crazy activities in the hallways, and some nights, I just couldn't sleep." He pointed outside his windows towards the roof of Carnegie Hall, and said, "Do you see that roof? It was three in the morning and I would wake up and hear singing all night long, and it was Judy Garland, singing like crazy."
Bill Cunningham told me also that before he was a photographer, he designed hats and had a hat shop. And when Actors Studio was there on the same floor, the 10th floor, Marilyn Monroe and some of the actors would visit his hat shop during their breaks to try on hats.
These stories are just a tiny little sample of what it was like and that's the part that I feel I missed.
YZ: What was your fondest memory living there?
JA: I can't say there was one fondest, but here is a fun memory: They were doing some repair work on the ceiling of the concert hall, and my studio was right there on top of the concert hall, on the eighth floor. There was a trap door, in the hallway, next to my door, where the workmen would go in. They had left it open one day, for the whole weekend, so some friends of mine and I, went under the trap door, in between the dusty pipes, and heard Montserrat Caballe's sing. She was a Goddess!
That was a really fun adventure and older tenants told me that in the old days, it used to be like a sieve, you could go into the concert hall from many of the places from the studios.
YZ: That's pretty cool! Do you still keep in touch with some of the artists and has there been any effort to somehow maintain this artist community?
JA: A few of us tried to organize something, maybe find another building, and we can call it Carnegie Studios Annex [smile], you know, something that would continue the spirit, because it seemed a shame that this community would be lost along with the historical spaces, but you can imagine, with a group of eccentric, very individualistic artists, and with the elderly rent-control tenants transported to other buildings, it was very difficult.
I keep in touch with almost all of them, and some of them are in these modern high-rises. To an ordinary person, looking up at these high-rises, one might think that it's a step up for these elderlies. But that's not how it looks to them, they are bohemians, they are like fish out of water. Editta Sherman kept saying, "Where is my studio? How do I take photographs in this space?" Bill Cunningham said, "Josef, I don't know how to behave in a building like this." Don Shirley still hasn't unpacked all the boxes stacked up in his living room. It's a lot of work for someone his age and it's not easy to help him, because everything has to be in a specific place.
YZ: We might need to organize an unpacking party for Don Shirley.
JA: Yes, I will let you know if we do.
YZ: Thank you for giving us a glimpse of what it was like to live in the studios above Carnegie Hall. What do you hope to achieve by distributing this film and how can people help the effort for distribution?
JA: The distribution is important, so the story can spread. I should start by saying that we had some success in film festivals, and that I got to see first hand how this story touched people on an emotional level that even surprised me. I think people realized that this isn't just a little story about an artist community on top of Carnegie Hall. This film represents a bigger problem that's happening everywhere: money and greed, corruption in government and the influence of politicians can destroy the soul of a city. Artists come to a city and contribute to the life and soul of the city, and pieces of these souls are being lost.
There aren't places for artists to go anymore. There always used to be a place, even if it wasn't a very good place. When I see the Bowery... do you remember the Bowery? The Bowery always meant...that was the place where, when you were falling through the cracks, and things didn't go well, maybe you became an alcoholic, everything is terrible, there was that place to fall down to. The Bowery now is very chic...there is just no place to go for the struggling artist.
I hope this film will bring attention to this fragile state of our cultural ecology in a way that will help others in preventing similar tragedies. I also hope that this film will preserve the legacy of the Carnegie Artist Studios as well as its remarkable tenants.
If people are interested to see the film and want to help us put the message out there, they can visit our Kickstarters page; any amount will be greatly appreciated.
YZ: What do you miss the most about that lost bohemia?
JA: It has to be the community; it's something that accumulates over time. In another words, when the studios opened, they didn't fill it with artists and then all of a sudden you have a community. It's something that evolved, and it morphed over time into something that I don't think could ever happen again. There was a cross pollination of artists that you didn't expect. For example, I did the photograph for Don Shirley's first CD, and the poet Elisabeth Sargent would come and help me with some ideas for photos, and it was that kind of interaction that I didn't expect when I moved into the building. I thought I was just renting a beautiful studio, but what I got was this community, and that is something you can't put a price on, and that is what I miss the most.
Elisabeth Sargent said: "We had a community there, people don't understand that. We knew other people like ourselves were there and they supported me for many years. You can't buy that...and I hope you can't sell it!"
Here is a timeline of the history of Carnegie Hall (http://www.nypap.org/content/carnegie-hall)