Dispatches: The Disenchantment of 11 Spring Street


Sitting on the northeast corner of New York City’s Elizabeth and Spring Streets, the Candle Building was for many years a mystery to passersby.  The five-story brick building has always-closed arched entrances on the ground level.  The bricks are brown and the windows are decorated with a repetition of the arch motif, this times as small arch details above pediments that serve as the windows’ top edges.  Inside these facade arches are small equine seals.  At the top level, the windows themselves are arched, tall, and narrow, while at ground level the ceiling height must be at least fourteen feet.  The whole building is covered in sooty grime, and at the ground level with an almost archaelogical layering of wheatpaste and paint.  In a neighborhood that features mostly rickety, turn-of-the-century tenement buildings with fire escapes and apartments, the Candle Building doesn’t really make sense – it clearly has some other purpose.  There are other tenement facades in the neighborhood (columns from an Italian villa, small neoclassical friezes) that have baroque touches, and there are outsized Beaux-Arts banks, but the Candle Building’s combination of humble brick, grandiose scale and giant entrances is inexplicable. 

I do not describe the building from memory – I’m looking at it right now.  I occupy the southwest corner of Elizabeth and Spring Streets, and the Candle Building is visible from all five of my windows.  When I first moved in, seven years ago, the building stayed completely inert until dark, when each window was illuminated by a small light and a dramatic pair of drawn curtains, and later, a string of little lights.  You never saw who entered or exited the place.  This clear demonstration that one person or group of people occupied the five-story structure was unbelievable and spooky.  It was a staged haunting made uncanny by its vast theatre.  At that time, ours was a humbler corner.  (A sleepy bodega, a Taoist temple, a laundromat and a Dominican barbershop have been replaced or joined by five restaurants, three bars, four boutiques, a hair salon, and a wine shop.)  So the dark speculations of the time tended towards the urban gothic, and, this having once been Little Italy, usually involved the mafia. 

One day that first year my landlord, a friendly man in his eighties who had lived his whole life on this block, was sitting in my apartment regaling me with stories of Golloo, a friend who had died in the fifties from drinking too many bottles of Coca-Cola too fast.  As Sonny’s small dog, Tiny, waited patiently, I asked Sonny about the building.  “Oh, the stables?”  With that one word, almost everything strange about the architecture of the building was resolved: the oversized arches, the ground floor’s height, the humble grandeur of the detailing.  Sonny told me that he remembered horses being kept inside.  With the next few sentences, he resolved for me the rest: the owner was a designer who lived alone and worked inside, and tended to the display.  There were other huge structures owned by single artists in the neighborhood, such as the photographer Jay Maisel’s giant bank on Spring and Bowery; they’re relics of a time when this neighborhood was a different kind of frontier.  It all made sense.

I was an initiate.  I could bandy this knowledge myself, letting people into the secret of 11 Spring Street if I chose, usually with a casual tone to denote my world-weariness and long familiarity with all New York secrets.  Almost as though it happened because I now knew, I began to see the owner occasionally, furtively exit the building’s side door.  But by this time, another development was occurring.  I’d begun to notice that the copious graffiti on its walls.  Now there used to be a lot of good walls in Soho for street art, because there were more abandoned buildings or shells to paint on without worrying about someone blasting the wall clean again.  But the Candle Building, along with a building on Wooster between Canal and Grand, was a mecca.  A couple of years ago, a friend began documenting the walls of the Candle whenever she happened to be over, and I started identifying and following the various practitioners who appeared there.  I did this often with the help of the website Wooster Collective, whose owners are probably the more important collectors of this kind of art, the unofficial curators of this world.  The Candle Building constituted a kind of intergenerational commitment to the creative and the strange, the irregular and unofficial.

Then, in one of those neighborhood transition-marking moments, the building was put up for sale.  My first thought was: I’ll buy it.  I called everyone with money I knew, found out the square footage, what kind of Certificate of Occupany there was, how much renovation costs might be.  I enlisted a friend, an architect who had worked for Rem Koolhaas, to help me.  For a while I said “C of O” like a professional.  I fantasized that we would rent the units for no profit to people who would appreciate what it meant to live in the Candle, who would be sickened if I even mentioned steam-cleaning the graff.  The place would be a bulwark, not against gentrification exactly, but against tastelessness.  Then the realtor finally told me the price: six million dollars.  The gig was up, and I wondered who would put up that kind of money, who could afford the payments while a couple of years of cleaning and renovation went on.  The answer was… Lachlan Murdoch, who’d been put in charge of the Post and wanted, sociopathically, to turn the whole place into his palatial urban residence.  Things were going from bad to worse; not only would I not rule the domain, but the son of Rupert Murdoch would.

Lachlan must have screwed up his nepotistic assignment, however, because after two years of owning the place, but thankfully leaving the exterior untouched, he left the Post and moved back to Australia.  By this time, street art had become a phenomenon, with major galleries promoting its new generation, and celebrated figures dropped by the Candle and other sites on Elizabeth frequently – there were Os Gemeos figures, Bast paste-ups, Rambo tags, etc.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that the building enjoyed worldwide fame, amongst a certain expanding subculture.  Things seemed to be in a kind of stasis.  Places in New York have a kind of half-life to them, in that the leaseholders and owners of properties and premises often last well into an oncoming stage of gentrification.  For a time, the property values a neighborhood commands remain hidden by stabilized tenants and owner-owned butcher shops.  Then, as leases expire, lessors pass on and owners cash out, the emergent identity of the neighborhood becomes apparent; developers and their more efficient business models snap up tawdry hotels and mysterious horse stables.  Which is, of course, what has now happened to the Candle.  Having been bought by a husband-and-wife development team, it is slated to be turned into three luxury triplexes and a floor-through apartment, with a new structure to be appended to the roof. 

Two weeks ago, I noticed, in broad daylight, a huge version of the London Police character being painted.  A couple of days later, I looked out my window to see Michael deFeo painting his happiness-inducing flower, giant-size, right next to it.  In plain sight?  Something was afoot.  I wandered down and learned that Wooster Collective has organized a sort of final exhibition at the Candle, with many major works to come, both on the walls and inside the building, which I got to look into for the first time ever.  New stuff is all over the place; it’s exciting.  All of this is being done with the approval of the new owners, one of whom apparently majored in art history, and will conclude with a party before the renovation and final scraping of the building’s exterior.  The scene on the corner has begun to resemble a circus of passersby snapping photos, artists painting and wheatpasting on ladders and scaffolds, and Marc and Sara of Wooster playing congenial ringmasters.

Take a look before December 16th, for sure.  And don’t be sad about the demise of the enigma that was the Candle: this isn’t that neighborhood anymore, and there’s no good reason for it to become a frozen museum to itself.  It is very thoughtful of the new developers to allow this reprieve.  But be warned: the whole thing has a slightly safe, invited feeling to it: it’s street art as conventional public art.  As Marc has pointed out to me, street depends on its illegality for some of its insurgent power.  That’s what makes it so philosophically interesting: it’s an intervention against the state’s and the advertisers’ right to control public space.  By that standard this final celebration of 11 Spring is not exactly street.  Even the giant scale the artists are able, without fear of arrest, to work on seems, paradoxically, to diminish their work by making it too obvious.  They don’t pop out at you, like street pieces usually do, a delightful irruption of artmaking where you don’t expect it.  But the enchanted secrets of cities will still be found elsewhere.  They’ll hide themselves again.

The rest of Dispatches.