Restoring Donald Judd’s SoHo Building

Andrew Moore

Departures takes a last look at the multi-functional space before restoration begins.

Donald Judd was 40 when he was finally able to buy his own place. It was 1968 in New York City, and his wife, the dancer Julie Finch, had recently given birth to their first child, Flavin, named after Judd’s good friend Dan Flavin. And Judd, at last, was unquestionably a successful artist: The Whitney Museum had just mounted a celebrated exhibition of his revolutionary Minimalist sculptures.

Armed with a Guggenheim grant, he and Finch went to look for loft spaces where they could create a specific kind of life—one opposed to what the famously dogmatic Judd saw as the inauthenticity, the mediocrity of spirit in postwar American culture. A real estate agent showed them 101 Spring Street, an 1870 cast-iron building at the corner of Mercer Street whose five floors had once been divided up for various manufacturing uses. The ground level was full of rubbish. But every floor had vast, soaring windows.

“One look and we said we’d take it,” says Finch. It cost $68,000. “We were taken for a ride.” They hadn’t had an engineer look at it, and the furnace was shot. “But we didn’t care,” Finch says, “because of the beauty and scale of it, because of the light. For Don it meant a great deal. Though it’s true it got a bit hot in the summer.” Not to mention cold in the winter.

Back then the neighborhood hadn’t yet been dubbed SoHo, and the retail tumult that now makes it one of the world’s shopping destinations was decades off. A big swath of the area was actually proposed for demolition to make way for an expressway across Lower Manhattan. “To move to that part of the city at that time was a rejection of any given manual of living,” says the artist’s son, Flavin, 41, now a writer living in Paris. “It was saying screw the world—I’m going to live in my studio, even if I have a family.”

Today the building remains exactly as it was when Judd died from cancer in 1994. Walk by the windows, and it is noticeable mostly because of what it is not. Surrounded by seductive brick and cast-iron shops, 101 Spring Street sits aloof—a time capsule of a defining moment in New York’s cultural history. Several years ago, however, pieces of the cast-iron façade began falling off, endangering passersby, and the Judd Foundation is now raising funds for a major restoration that will begin next year. The foundation’s executive director, Barbara Hunt McLanahan, explains that the primary goal is to “preserve and maintain the space as it was installed by Donald Judd,” but it’s also to bring the building up to code and make it accessible to the public.

Just reaching this point was a victory: Amid the contentious sorting out of Judd’s debt-laden estate, serious consideration was given to selling 101 Spring Street a decade ago. The foundation ultimately put itself on firmer footing by offering 36 Judd works for auction at Christie’s in 2006, raising $26 million, though the artist’s companion at the time of his death, Marianne Stockebrand, whom he’d appointed foundation director and lifetime trustee, resigned in protest.

Once the building work is completed—probably in early 2013—the foundation expects to welcome around 6,000 visitors a year, with tours limited to small groups. There are tentative plans to organize special installations of Judd’s work on the ground floor, currently a hushed, nearly empty space that features just one of Judd’s horizontal wall pieces (a series of five aluminum-and-Plexiglas boxes), a sculpture by Carl Andre consisting of eight stacked bricks, and a dignified old rolltop desk that was there when Judd moved in.

For the most part, the building will be preserved like a pharaoh’s tomb. Everything will remain untouched, including the fifth-floor bedroom, where Judd slept on a platform bed he designed himself and the entire west wall—some 65 feet—is lined by a colonnade of overlapping squares of fluorescent tubes, buzzing electric red and blue. It’s a work by Dan Flavin dedicated to Judd’s son, profound and perfect—a memory as well as an eternal intention, like the rest of the house.

This was how Judd wanted it. “I thought the building should be repaired and basically not changed,” he wrote in an essay. “My requirements were that the building be useful for living and working and more importantly, more definitely, be a space in which to install work of mine and of others.…Everything from the first was intended to be thoroughly considered and to be permanent.”

Judd and Finch began renovations on 101 Spring Street in 1969. Living there “was like urban homesteading,” Finch says. “The floors were soaked with machine oil. You’d wash them and they would seem clean, then it would seep back a month later. But we had a lot of fun. Obviously Don made a situation where his working places were as important as living spaces, if not more so.”

Space was also key to his art. Judd had started out as a painter but gave that up, impulsively bolting from the prodigious shadow of the Abstract Expressionists. In the early sixties he began using common industrial materials—aluminum, cold-rolled steel, Plexiglas—to create freestanding and wall-mounted box-like forms in numerous variations and often in bold colors. For Judd these objects were never referential or allusive, certainly not of the artist’s emotional state. Utterly literal, the works represented nothing more than what they were, serving to define the space around them.

Judd had worked for years as an art critic, and everything he did was a form of criticism. Irascible and judgmental, he didn’t like most museums or collectors or curators. He didn’t like being labeled a Minimalist (preferring “empiricist” instead), even though he is often cited as its most famous practitioner. And he disavowed pretty much anything that anybody else tried to put on him—attempts to define him or tell him how to create his art or how he should live.

When I spoke to his daughter, Rainer, a 39-year-old filmmaker and actress who was born when they lived at 101 Spring Street, she’d been up late reading Edward Abbey. “I’m just really interested in a certain kind of feisty person like John Chamberlain, Kurt Vonnegut, and my dad,” she says. “Guys who liked bourbon, who felt passionately about messing with the system. It came out of a passionate disapproval of what was going on in our society. Spring Street embodies some of that rebellion.”

The house, Rainer says, “could get pretty crazy. There was a lot of drama and alcohol. A lot of antiwar stuff was going on in the streets, but there was a lot of war at home.”

Her parents threw hard-drinking parties. The second floor is a large dining and entertaining space, with a long, Judd-designed table and an open kitchen. “It was a fairly hedonistic time,” says Hunt McLanahan. “There’s quite a section of aquavit and clear corn spirits and tequilas.”

Flavin recounts asking his mother about the famous neighbors from his childhood he simply knew as family friends. “It was a who’s who of artists and creative types of the sixties and seventies,” he says. “Having them all living next to each other in a rather small area—I doubt you’ll ever see that sort of condensation of talent again.”

One of the things this community had was an integrated life of taste. They shopped in Little Italy for fresh bread and handmade sausages. Giorgio DeLuca (before partnering with Dean) had a cheese shop. The artist Gordon Matta-Clark opened a SoHo restaurant called Food.

It was all well-suited to Judd’s ideals. At 101 Spring Street he sought an existence that was international, artisanal, rigorously examined. What he cooked up (and there was a lot of cooking and drinking) seems presciently in tune with ideals of living well today.

“We spent a lot of time in that building, socializing, talking about art and politics,” says Maureen Jerome, whose husband, John, was Judd’s lawyer and longtime friend. “And you know there was a style to it, what is now called a lifestyle. Don modified all his spaces to reflect his art. He was very specific even about how food was displayed on the dishes—he had these very big platters he bought in Italy. Everything was tightly curated.”

Sure, Judd installed avant-garde works by Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella. But he also brought in a big commercial stove and Alvar Aalto chairs, and he designed his own furniture (which can be ordered through the Judd Foundation).

“Trisha Brown put dancers on rooftops. Philip Glass held a concert inside 101 Spring Street,” says Rainer. “It makes sense that DeLuca would say, ‘We’ll find the best olive oil, and then we’ll teach people it’s the best.’ This level of engagement applies to artists and to foodies.”

Then a Park Avenue collector of Judd’s work moved to SoHo. The neighborhood was changing. “Now Blimpies will be moving in,” Judd would tell Finch. “In his worst nightmares he couldn’t have imagined what it has become,” she says. “He just wanted peace and quiet.”

Unsurprisingly, for a guy who wrote an essay titled “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp,” domesticity was difficult for Judd. “There was a huge debate between my parents over a Mies van der Rohe chair,” says Rainer. “All four of us would try to sit on it, but it wasn’t quite wide enough. My mother said, ‘We need a sofa.’ Don said no. He didn’t want that symbol of suburban life in the house. But she bought one from Bloomingdale’s and got him to accept it. I guess the marriage fell apart not long after.”

Judd started looking for land out west, and in 1973 he bought some in the town of Marfa in western Texas, an area he’d visited as a young army recruit before serving in Korea. It was remote but enabled him to imagine a truly separate place, where he could do what he wanted. Real estate was cheap, and he eventually acquired a number of buildings—including several on a former army base—that he set about renovating for permanent installations of his art and works by a few other artists he respected.

“He wanted to live there and the marriage was over,” Rainer says. “So he staged a coup, I guess you’d call it. He kidnapped us in May of ’77, put us in schools in Texas, and filed for custody.”

Judd increasingly focused his energies on Marfa, supported for a while by the Dia Foundation, though that relationship, like so many in the artist’s life, ended acrimoniously. Back in New York, 101 Spring Street wasn’t used much, except for occasional parties attended by regulars such as Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg, John Wesley, and the gallerist Leo Castelli—plus the father and son bagpipers Judd sometimes hired for musical accompaniment.

After deciding that the kids should finish their education in New York, Judd brought them back to the city in 1983. Traveling regularly to Marfa, he continued making art, often variations on earlier pieces, and immersed himself in architectural projects, including a home in Eichholteren, Switzerland. He had a second exhibition at the Whitney in 1988, and his work was the subject of shows around the world. Judd was living at 101 Spring Street when he fell ill for the last time.

Today there are two organizations dedicated to his legacy. In addition to the Judd Foundation, there’s the Chinati Foundation (named after a nearby mountain range), which Judd created to maintain the art-filled buildings in Marfa that are open to the public, appointing Stockebrand as its director. Despite talk of merging the two foundations, they have stayed separate, with Stockebrand heading Chinati and Flavin and Rainer on the board of Judd. Much has been made of Marfa’s sometimes uneasy gentrification and emergence as a fashionable art world pilgrimage site. Perhaps 101 Spring Street, on a very different scale, will become its own destination—another kind of shrine to Judd’s vision.

“I think that ‘shrine’ is a bit of an exaggeration,” says Finch. “It’s a museum. Rainer and I made eggnog there last year, and we had to wash dishes that had rarely been used over the past twenty years.” She pauses for a minute, and sounds a bit giddy. “A shrine! Oh my goodness. Her father’s home is a shrine!”

For information about 101 Spring Street and Judd’s Marfa projects, as well as ordering his furniture, visit juddfoundation.org and chinati.org.