By RANDY KENNEDY for the NY Times
When the Andrew Freedman Home opened in the Bronx in 1924, it looked like a limestone luxury liner sailing up the Grand Concourse, a grandiosity that advertised its odd function: a privately endowed retirement home for the formerly well-to-do, those who might have lost their money but not their manners or manorial tastes.
“They were expected to have attained a state of reasonable culture,” commented an article in The New Yorker at the time, “and not to eat peas with their knives.” Freedman, who died in 1915, had been an owner of the New York Giants baseball team and a financier of New York’s first subway lines, and his unusual will created a retirement home as palazzo, with plush carpets, plentiful servants and formal dress required at dinner.
By the 1980s the home had fallen on hard times. And though the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council, which came to own it, has made good use of parts of it with a day care center, community programs and an events space, much of the rest of the vast building has been kept sealed off like a tomb, a time-capsule monument to the Bronx’s grand past, awaiting a new kind of future. In other words, exactly the sort of place that site-specific, history-scrambling, entropy-obsessed contemporary-art dreams are made of.
For the last several weeks a group of more than 30 artists — some well known, like Mel Chin, Sylvia Plachy and Bronx veterans like John Ahearn and the collective Tim Rollins and K.O.S. — have been at work in the home, turning old bedrooms and bathrooms into installations that mine the building’s eccentric history as a way of drawing in the life of the borough around it.
An exhibition of the pieces — organized by No Longer Empty, a nonprofit art group that got its start in 2009 by using spaces made vacant by the recession — will open April 4, granting the public access to one of the city’s stranger Gilded Age palaces for the first time.
“As a kid I used to walk by here all the time, and I never knew what it was for or what was going on inside,” said the painter and graffiti artist John Matos, better known as Crash, as he worked one recent morning on a subway-theme piece that will cover the walls of a second-floor corner bedroom.
For many years the landmark building, on the corner of East 166th Street, has existed in a kind of open-but-closed limbo. Its ground floor is almost always full of children, in day care and in a Head Start program. Two elegant ballrooms and a book-filled library above have been maintained for weddings and other events, and for several years the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a block away, held outdoor film screenings and other programs at the home.
But Walter E. Puryear, the Mid-Bronx Council’s project manager for the home, said that almost 60,000 of its 100,000 square feet remain closed off, and that art collaborations are one way the organization hopes to draw attention to the building and generate support for plans to make more use of it. The hope is to create a small-business incubator, a culinary training program and other socially minded businesses at the home.
“Beauty by itself is a wonderful thing,” Mr. Puryear said of using parts of the building as a kind of kunsthalle. “But beauty that inspires people to greater endeavors is even better.”
The artists involved in the project, titled “This Side of Paradise,” have been given free rein to rummage through the near-abandoned parts of the building, which have the look of a well-lived-in place left in a hurry: old turntables and VHS cassettes (“Double Dragon in Last Duel”); a black nightgown draped over a closet rod; a pair of plastic leg braces standing together in a hallway; a sheaf of Physicians Mutual insurance papers dated 1974, addressed to a man named Henry Ward.
The artists Elizabeth Hamby and Hatuey Ramos-Fermín plan to use an old hook board where the keys of dozens of the home’s residents once hung, labeled with plastic lettering tape that has memorialized only their surnames: Mrs. Kovacs, Mrs. Whipple, Mrs. Bosky, Mrs. Jimenez, the Echts. In one of the preserved ballrooms, the artist Nicky Enright recently created a musical assemblage out of a badly decayed Walters upright piano found upstairs; it now sits with old Remington, Smith-Corona and Underwood manual typewriters atop it like oxpeckers perched on a hippo. Many of the rooms on the third and fourth floors are filled with broken furniture and covered in snowdrifts of paint chips from the crumbling ceilings.
“When people said to me, ‘Are you going to try to clean up the hallways?’ I said, ‘No, there’s no way you can put a Band-Aid on something like this,” said Manon Slome, the president and chief curator of No Longer Empty, who was introduced to the building with the help of Mr. Puryear and Holly Block, the Bronx Museum’s director. “I think you have to start by working in the decay, and then as this place gets more funding, that kind of work can be done.”
Some is already under way, tentatively. Ten of the home’s old high-ceilinged rooms have been beautifully restored in a wing that will open in April as a small bed-and-breakfast, furnished with original 1930s and 1940s furniture that has been refinished and reupholstered.Cheryl Pope, a Chicago artist whose piece will feature a choir of strangers she met and recruited from Bronx streets and barbershops, recently spent a night in one of the rooms and said being alone in the cavernous building was a little more than what she had bargained for.
“It felt like I was in ‘The Shining,’ ” she said, adding that a caretaker, before leaving for the night, handed her a two-foot-long machete. “I said, ‘What’s this for?,’ and he said it was in case I came across anyone who broke in during the night. Nothing like that happened. There were just a lot of weird noises.”
But Ms. Pope’s installation, which involves an artificial, meticulously gold-leafed version of a paint-flaked ceiling, channels a more benevolent supernatural ethos, transforming two of the residents’ abandoned old rooms into more of a chapel than a corner of a haunted house.
“There’s something about those rooms, left the way they are,” she said. “They definitely have a holy quality.”