- 537 BroadwayPerformance and Buildings
Since 1974, like many other spaces in downtown Manhattan, the 537-541 Broadway cast-iron building became the headquarters of an artists’ community that worked outside the conventional borders of the art system. Moved by the co-operative housing spirit that took roots in SoHo during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fluxus leader George Maciunas helped to buy and refurbish many commercial lofts formerly used by marginal business in the neighborhood.1 In 1967, he organized the acquisition of the first building on 80 Wooster Street, which he named FluxHouse II, after a first attempt on Spring Street. He kept the basement as his personal operation base, and from there, he ran the entire Fluxhouse project: the first artists’ co-op initiative in SoHo. Beyond residences and studios, Maciunas hoped to establish collective workshops, food-buying cooperatives, and theatres to link the strengths of various media and bridge the gap between the artists and the neighborhood.
He materialized his utopian planning impulses through detailed projections of construction costs and the benefits of wholesale purchases. He was convinced that legal prohibitions could be overcome, despite the fact that SoHo was not zoned for residential use. He established himself as the president of Fluxhouse Co-operatives, Inc., performing all the organizational work involved in the planning. He was in charge of creating the collectives, purchasing buildings, obtaining mortgages, securing legal and architectural services, and conducting work as a general contractor for all renovations. He also offered to handle the future management, if so desired by the members. It was through this planning that Maciunas helped to purchase sixteen buildings that he later remodeled and sold to artists, making very little profit.2 [End Page 53]
Five thirty-seven and five forty-one Broadway—later separated in two artists’ co-ops—was the last building developed through this plan. In 1868, the five-story cast-iron building was erected by Irish architect Charles Mettam after a spectacular fire on the former site of P. T. Barnum’s Chinese Museum Collection (1853–1863) and, later, P. T. Barnum’s second American Museum (1865–1868). Five thirty-seven and five forty-one Broadway was designed shortly after the Civil War for joint owners Benjamin Franklin Beekman, who had his office there, and Peter Gilsey, the strong advocate of cast-iron who was soon to build the Gilsey Hotel, which is still standing on Broadway at Twenty-Ninth Street. The Broadway building was later extended two hundred feet through the block to Mercer Street, where it currently appears under the numbers 108-112 Mercer Street.3
For this last FluxHouse, Maciunas assembled a group of multi-disciplinary artists who subsequently split the 537-541 building into two co-operatives. Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, David Gordon, Valda Settefield, and Joan Jonas bought lofts at 541 Broadway. The building was shortly going to become the so-called “Dancers’ Building.” Their spaces were wider than the standard twenty-five-foot-long lofts without columns, and the floors were entirely made of wood; these factors qualified as an ideal combination for performance practices.4 For the 537 Broadway section, Maciunas brought together Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota, Ay-O, Yoshi Wada, Simone Forti, Peter Van Riper, Frances Alenikoff, Mary Beth Edelson, Davidson Gigliotti, Elaine Summers, and Maciunas himself. They decided to name their co-op The Cast-Iron Court Corporation after the internal courtyard separating them from their symmetrical artists twin-co-op at 541 Broadway. With this newly established artistic community, the whole building became a laboratory accommodating the emerging fields of video, performance, and visionary new works in disciplines such as poetry, music, and dance.
As Maciunas did with many of the buildings he helped to purchase and renovate, he kept a spot in the building for himself: the second-floor loft on 537 Broadway would become the base of his renewal operations until 1976, when he was forced to leave New York after suffering a violent assault by the construction mafia, causing the end of his ambitions housing program. He then sold the loft to the French artist Jean Dupuy, who moved in with Olga Adorno...