Illegal Living offers the history of a SoHo building where artists flourished.
On the roof of 80 Wooster Street, Charles Ross made his first solar-burn drawings. Joe Schlichter walked down the building’s façade. And Trisha Brown wriggled in and out of garments hanging on a clothesline at Jonas Mekas’s Cinematheque, on the first floor. All three artists also lived there, illegally, in lofts with makeshift bathrooms and kitchens and haphazard trash removal.
Illegal Living, published by the Jonas Mekas Foundation, describes life at 80 Wooster Street in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when SoHo began to coalesce as an art district.
At Cinematheque, Mekas, a filmmaker and curator, created a home for avant-garde films. But the activity within the building sometimes interfered with his projects. “Just above us there were always children running and throwing things,” Mekas says. “You could not show anything silent.” At one point the city shut down the theater, but it reopened, and in 1974 also became home to Anthology Film Archives, which later relocated to the East Village.
Shael Shapiro, an architect who lived in the building, and who is the co-author of Illegal Living with his wife, Roslyn Bernstein, a journalist, recalls participating in therapeutic screaming sessions with Schlichter. “We did not disturb the neighbors,” he says.
The book investigates the site’s history, going back to the late 18th century, when Wooster Street was named, after a general who had fought for the colonies in the Revolutionary War. Cornelius C. Jacobus, a builder, was typical of the modest people who lived at 80 Wooster. In 1829 he built a two-story dwelling on the lot. Over the years, the neighborhood’s residential character diminished as industry moved in.
In 1894 Jacobus’s house was replaced with a seven-story cast-iron building in the Beaux-Arts style erected by a real-estate firm, Boehm & Coon, whose insignia is still visible on its façade. Its first occupants were manufacturers of candy and cardboard boxes. Then, from 1931 to 1967, the Miller Cardboard Company made decorative papers there.
The man who turned the building into live-work spaces for artists was George Maciunas, the founder of the Fluxus movement and a dreamer and provocateur. In 1967, Maciunas bought the building from Miller for $105,000, making a down payment of $21,000, cobbled together from a loan and artists’ deposits on their units. Miller, which relocated to a more modern facility, gave Maciunas an $84,000 mortgage.
The battle to change the zoning codes was tough, and illegal living went on for a long time—it wasn’t until 1979 that the building was granted a certificate of occupancy. By then, many of the early occupants had moved on, including Shapiro, who bought his cooperative for $5,000 and sold it for $36,000. The tenants of the eleven lofts today include affluent professionals; the ground floor houses Cashmere Ltd.
When Maciunas died, in 1978, there was a funeral service at 80 Wooster Street at which Fluxus artist Larry Miller cranked a jack-in-the-box. “This all came about because one person had a vision,” Shapiro says.