In the mid-19th century, New York’s Soho neighborhood was a thriving theater and shopping district with upscale hotels and luxury department stores. But by the turn of the 20th century, it had become an industrial wasteland of warehouse buildings and sweatshop factories. The area was so glum, that it came to be known as Hell’s Hundred Acres.
Beginning in the 1960s, the neighborhood became a gritty haven for artists. Bursting with creative energy but thin in the pocketbook, painters, sculptors, and other creative types were drawn to the huge open loft spaces, high ceilings and humongous windows the warehouse and factory buildings offered, as well as the paltry rents the landlords were then relieved to get for buildings that might have otherwise sat vacant.
Restaurants and shops eventually opened to serve the urban homesteaders; the usual gentrification followed — for better and worse, money typically follows art — and fast forward to today, the neighborhood is thick with high-priced boutiques, posh hotels and big-name fashion retailers like Gucci, Chanel, and Dior.
There are still artists living and working in Soho, though nowadays it requires the salary of a financier or software engineer to rent or buy in the neighborhood. According to Zumper, the average rent for a two-bedroom spread is $11,750, and according to both Redfin and Realtor.com, the median sale price for the neighborhood exceeds $3 million.
One of the first artists to settle in Soho was Charles Ross, a multimedia artist best known as a light sculptor and earthwork artist. Now in his mid 80s and named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2011, Ross does not have the same international name-brand recognition as some of his peers, nor do his paintings sell for the stratospheric sums realized by a fortunate few artists of his generation. Nonetheless, the prescient and cerebral artist, who studied mathematics at UC Berkeley, was long ago able to purchase a large loft space on Wooster Street.
When Ross set up his home and studio all those decades ago, the cobblestone-paved street was no doubt strewn with trash and dangerously desolate after dark. Today, the cast-iron building in which his residence and art studio are located is sandwiched between Moschino and Celine, across the street from the trendy, gallery-like eyeglass shop Gentle Monster.
Ross and his wife, minimalist artist Jill O’Bryan, spend a portion of each year in New Mexico, where for the last forty-one years he’s been building “Star Axis,” an 11-story naked-eye observatory constructed of sandstone, bronze, granite, and stainless steel. Projected to be completed this year and described on its website as “an architectonic earth/star sculpture constructed with the geometry of the stars,” the monumental sculpture “offers an intimate experience of how the earth’s environment extends into the space of the stars.” Heady stuff, indeed!
This year, while in New Mexico working on “Star Axis,” Ross and O’Bryan wish to rent their airy and light-filled two-story loft residence on Wooster Street, fully furnished for five-months, at a rate of $12,500 per month.
For that sum one gets two bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms, a 41-foot living and dining room with gleaming Brazilian Cherry wood floors, soaring 16-foot ceilings and gigantic east-facing windows with views over Soho. There’s also an open kitchen, a lofted home office, central air conditioning, and a washer/dryer.
The living room features a suite of Le Corbusier furniture, a 40-inch flat-screen TV and, best of all, several original works of art by Ross. The listing explicitly states that cats will not be permitted, and the “Mandatory weekly housekeeping” will run the deep-pocketed short-term tenant, who will definitely not be a starving artist, another $175 a week.
Listing agent Bill Kowalczuk of Coldwell Banker Warburg declined to comment.