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Hidden in Plain Sight: Calling Bank Buildings Home

MAY 17, 2011

One New York photographer’s longtime residence—a 72,000-square-foot former bank building—must be seen to be believed.

If you’ve ever walked past the fortress-like six-story corner building at 190 Bowery you may have thought it could be an abandoned bank, with no signs of life within. That is, unless you had read this New York Magazine article (or a handful of subsequent ones). The 35,000 square-foot 1898 building is actually the private residence of photographer Jay Maisel, his wife, Linda, and daughter, Amanda. The photographer bought it 45 years ago—when it was actually abandoned—for $102,000 and has been living in the 72 room “bohemian dream house” with his family ever since. Life wasn’t always a dream: Maisel has spent decades waging Sisyphean clean-up battles with graffiti to appease city laws. Maisel did—and continues to do—most renovation work himself. And since the former Germania Bank building is an official landmark, simple repairs can be difficult. Maisel says, “If I have a window that is broken, I have to repair it…the way it was done in 1898.”

But he’s quick to say he’s not complaining. The former bank’s stunning interiors—in most cases, very little has been altered—make a fine, if quirky, backdrop for an artist’s dream home. The first, second, and third floors are used as gallery spaces for photography and art projects; basement safety deposit vaults (“the size of a generous studio apartment”) store photographs. From the vegetable garden on the building’s rooftop to the fact that it is currently valued at well upwards of $40 million (though the Maisels have no plans to sell) in one of downtown’s hottest districts, few can argue that 190 Bowery is a find of epic proportions (New York Magazine).

Another former bank building at 106 Avenue C may not be as vast, but the private two-family home with two units in the landmarked Public National Bank building represents a similarly unusual city residence. The Public National Bank was built in 1923, designed by Eugene Schoen, a noted local modernist architect at the time. It was turned into a nursing home in 1954. In the 1980s the building was converted to residential use and has changed hands only once since then. Currently owned by Catherine Kord, former wife of artist and furniture designer Richard Artschwager—who also lived there for a time—the impressive corner building contains only two apartments covering 5,000+ square feet. As with 190 Bowery, there is very little outside evidence of the building’s colorful inner life.