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GEORGE MACIUNAS: THE FATHER OF SOHO

By Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro

Roslyn Bernstein is a professor of Journalism at Baruch College, CUNY where she serves as the director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program. She also teaches feature writing at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She writes on urban issues, culture and the arts. In 2009, she published Boardwalk Stories.

Shael Shapiro is an architect who has lived and worked in SoHo for almost 45 years including seven in 80 Wooster Street. He was active in changing the zoning for SoHo, writing the NYS Multiple Dwelling Law for loft conversions, and has been the architect for the conversion of hundreds of loft buildings.

They are the co-authors of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of Soho, published by the Jonas Mekas Foundation. The following article is drawn from Illegal Living. To order a copy, click here.

80 Wooster Street, 1898. Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

George Maciunas did not invent artists loft living. He did, however, invent loft cooperatives and in doing so became the person responsible for the creation of SoHo.

When Maciunas discovered 80 Wooster Street in 1967, the building was past its prime as a commercial venue. The Miller Cardboard Company was eager to sell and Maciunas, the Lithuanian born artist-visionary, founder of the Fluxus art movement, was eager to buy.

As a young man, Maciunas had been greatly influenced by Petrus Salcius, the Lithuanian economist who was the founder of a powerful farmers’ cooperative movement which emerged in Lithuania around 1930. The notion of buying things in quantities and distributing them equitably pleased Maciunas, who would buy crates of oranges and sacks of potatoes and distribute them to his friends. His failure to succeed financially in this venture did not deter him from the cooperative housing idea.

In New York, Maciunas met Petrus Salcius’s nephew, Almus Salcius, who was running a small private gallery, The Almus Gallery, out of his home in Great Neck, Long Island. There, he exhibited the works of Eastern European artists and other immigrants. With Salcius’s backing, Maciunas opened the AG Gallery (named for Almus and George) on Madison Avenue in 1961 to exhibit the work of artists who where part of the Fluxus movement which Maciunas had founded years earlier in Europe.

The short lived AG experience taught Maciunas that to succeed one needed to be more than a visionary. Always shaking his finger at those around him, he wrote, “Maybe others will come up with constructive and realistic proposals on promotional activities rather than criticisms.” Despite his disappointment, he would not relinquish his dreams. Maciunas decamped to Europe which he felt would be more receptive to his ideas and where many Fluxus artists lived.

After returning to New York in 1963, Maciunas published a one page manifesto titled “FLUXHOUSE, PLAN FOR AN ARTIST CONDOMINIUM IN NEW YORK CITY.” In it he set forth the economic problems facing artists and proposed a solution. He envisioned purchasing underutilized loft buildings by a not-for-profit corporation and renovating them to provide living-work spaces for artists. He saw communal resources for the artists and expected that in return the artists would provide services to the greater community. It took another four years before he started to implement his plan.

Maciunas was well aware of the difficulties facing him in creating cooperative artists’ housing. The easy part was finding the buildings. Owners of loft buildings in the then named Hells Hundred Acres area were happy to sell their largely vacant buildings for a few dollars a square foot.

The other easy part was finding artists who were interested in cheap living-work space. As word spread, hundreds of artists contacted Maciunas and expressed interest in his plan. The demand for space was much greater than the initial supply. Joe Schlichter, a dancer and early resident of 80 Wooster Street, recalls that initially Maciunas cast dice to determine which artists would get lofts.

Two problems facing Maciunas helped thin the list of prospective loft owners. The first was money. Neither Maciunas nor the artists had any. Maciunas planned to put theaters for his friend and fellow Lithuanian, Jonas Mekas in the ground floors of his first two buildings. Mekas had supporters who were to put up the necessary money. In the end, Mekas was able to raise only enough money for one venue, so he committed to 80 Wooster Street for the New York Filmmakers Cinematheque.

Maciunas was also able to obtain a loan of $20,000 from the National Foundation for the Arts and the Kaplan Foundation. Using the loan with some deposit money from artists, he was able to put down $21,000 to buy 80 Wooster Street. The seller, Miller Cardboard Co. took back a mortgage of $84,000. For 16-18 Greene Street, Maciunas used deposit monies from 80 Wooster as well as 16-18 Greene to pay a $13,000 down payment on the $60.000 purchase price. This practice of using money from one building to pay the accounts of another was perfectly consistent with his concept of the buildings each being a part of a greater whole but was later to get him in trouble.

Fluxus Newsletter No. 10, February 8, 1967. Collection of Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro.

Funding for renovations was another story. In his newsletters and promotional materials, Maciunas promised, in addition to “new plumbing system, new bathrooms, kitchens, electrical rewiring, floor finish, partitions, cabinets, closets” that each building would have a “self-service elevator, central air cooling & heating system.”  In Fluxhouse Newsletter No. 10 dated Feb 8, 1967 Maciunas estimated the renovation cost for all the promised items at 80 Wooster Street would be $145,000. This was way beyond the means of most of the artists who were planning to live in the building. To resolve this problem, Maciunas proposed obtaining a loan for building renovation and acquisition costs. In Fluxhouse Newsletter No. 14, dated August 12, 1967 and called “BAD NEWS,” Maciunas reported that loans from the FHA, NFA and Kaplan Foundation had been denied.

He went on to say that the minimum work to make a building suitable for occupancy would be $1,700 per unit and that those who could not raise the money could leave Fluxhouse and get their deposits back, apply to the NFA for admittance to their West Street project (Westbeth), or start their own cooperative.

The second factor thinning the ranks of prospective cooperators was legality. While nothing prohibited artists from buying a building, there were a multitude of City and State laws, rules and regulations which prohibited them from living in these buildings and from forming residential coops.

In his manifesto, Maciunas refers to “certain concessions in zoning requirements.” Hell’s Hundred Acres was located in an M1-5 zoning district which permitted only manufacturing, warehouse and commercial uses. So, while artists’ studios were allowed, living in them was not permitted. Mayor Robert Wagner had issued an executive order allowing artists to reside in up to two lofts in a factory building. This situation worked fine when there were a small number of rental lofts scattered throughout the area. In his naivety, Maciunas thought the zoning restrictions could be dealt with under the then current agreement with minor modification. With no assurances that there would ever be a legal right to live in these buildings under the zoning, and that even if the zoning were modified that they could be renovated to comply with the Building Code and Multiple Dwelling Law, many of those on Maciunas’ list withdrew.

The other legal issue was the real estate syndication laws regulated by the New York State Attorney General. This lengthy, expensive offering procedure did not fit Maciunas’ vision. Maciunas organized his Fluxhouses as agricultural cooperatives, filed with the NYS Department of State, a serendipitous reflection of their origins in the Lithuanian agricultural coop movement.

Poster for Fluxus show at Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas, 1984. George Maciunas with newly planted tree at 80 Wooster Street. Photo of George Maciunas and poster design by Larry Miller ©

There was not a lending institution in town willing to give a loan for purchase or renovation of a loft. The artists scraped together their life savings and borrowed money from friends and relatives. No one anticipated profiting from this venture. In fact, most of the early settlers assumed that at some time they would be evicted from their homes and lose their investment.

Despite the financial hardships, an intrepid band of foolhardy artists and their families decided to throw caution to the wind and cast their lot with Maciunas

Another issue confronting Maciunas was organization. His grand vision included dozens of coop buildings functioning both as individual buildings and as part of a greater whole. Maciunas took on the obligations of finding and purchasing the building, creating the coop entity, finding artists to buy the lofts, doing the basic renovations for the building as a whole and for the individual loft owners, and seeing the process through until a self sufficient cooperative emerged. The building at 80 Wooster Street had elected officers; however, it was Maciunas who actually ran the building. In the early days Maciunas maintained a common bank account for a number of the buildings and paid the mortgage, taxes, insurance and other operating expenses as well as payments to workers and suppliers for construction work from this account. Maciunas kept meticulous records and periodically issued Statements of Account to owners showing where their money went.

This arrangement did not last long, as the individual buildings wanted to control their own funds. Because he was taking large doses of steroids for his severe asthma, Maciunas slept only a few hours a night. This extra found time enabled him to work all night with no interruption.

It upset Maciunas when others did not go along fully with his plans. In what was called the “Last Newsletter from George Maciunas, To Fluxhouse II & III, Dec. 21, 1967 Not Applicable to Fluxhouse I (Greene Street),” Maciunas expressed his extreme displeasure at the Wooster Street and Grand Street buildings for their lack of appreciation for his efforts and the lack of collective spirit and said that in the future he should be paid for his work.

It is ironic that the 16-18 Greene Street building (Fluxhouse 1) which was not included in the diatribe would shortly thereafter force him to sell his space in the building, change its name, and discontinue their relationship with Maciunas and that 80 Wooster would remain as his base of operations until he left the city.

By 1967 Maciunas had identified ten buildings which he was trying to coop. In a flyer he stated that eight buildings had already been purchased as three (actually four)  cooperatives: 80 Wooster Street housing Film-Makers’ Cinematheque; 16-18 Greene Street which is to house cooperative workshops, darkrooms, studios, food distribution center and a theater to be called 18 Greene Street Precinct; 64-70 Grand Street and 33 Wooster Street and 131 Prince Street. The purchase price would be about $2 per square foot with monthly charges of about 3 cents a foot. Renovations would cost extra and would vary. He listed unit costs which would result in total renovation of $3,000 to $10,000. There was no longer any mention of automatic elevators or central heating/air-conditioning. The flyer clearly stated that prior to its legal use for residences and studios each building would require amendment of the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law or reclassification by the City Zoning Commission or a variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals.

Studio area of Robert Watts’ loft at 80 Wooster Street, ca. 1967. Photo © Robert Watts Estate, courtesy of the Getty Trust.

Maciunas went on to develop sixteen buildings but maintained a special relationship with 80 Wooster Street. Fluxhouse Coop II is generally acknowledged as the first successful artists’ coop in SoHo, if not the world. Although he maintained an apartment in an old tenement building at 349 West Broadway, 80 Wooster Street was his base of operation and the place where he often slept.

Maciunas worked out of a back office in the basement, adjacent to the storage space used by Cinematheque which was located on the ground floor. It is not surprising that many memories of Maciunas begin with visual recollections of his quirky basement office in 80 Wooster. It was the site of many business meetings as Maciunas moved forward with his Fluxhouse Cooperative dream.

As general contractor for renovating the buildings he hired licensed plumbers and electricians to oversee the construction but hired young artists to do most of the actual work. Kevin Harrison answered an ad in the Village Voice. He recalled that it said something like, “Hard work-low pay. The weak should not apply.” Maciunas put him to work with the playwright and director Richard Foreman building the Cinematheque. After a while Harrison learned electrical work and then plumbing

By the early 1970’s the number of artists’ coops in SoHo was multiplying rapidly. The Attorney General’s office became concerned that many building sponsors were evading regulations by filing as agricultural coops or by forming partnerships or business corporations. Many of those that did file offerings with the Attorney General did not provide the purchasers with units in which they could reside either physically or legally. It was often the responsibility of the purchasers to renovate the building and obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. In some cases they had to obtain a zoning special permit or variance.

George Maciunas was high on the Attorney General’s hit list. On August 26, 1974 Maciunas wrote to Attorney General, Louis K. Lefkowitz suggesting that he stop picking on artists. After a number of letters back and forth, Assistant Attorney General Lawrence F. Ravetz, on February 18, 1975 issued a subpoena to Maciunas commanding him to appear at the office of the Attorney General at 2 World Trade Center with all of the books and records of his company, Good Deal Realty Corp.

In the typical Maciunas manner, George turned his problems into art. Maciunas built a trap door in the cellar ceiling which would allow him to escape from police or others and took to wearing disguises when going out. In order to prevent the police from pushing in his door, he mounted four sharp industrial cutting blades on the outside. The May 3, 1975 Fluxus Newsletter had an article titled “FLUX COMBAT-WITH THE NEW YORK STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL (& POLICE)-EVENT IN PROGRESS” in which Maciunas described what he was doing.

Maciunas had lost control of his dream. SoHo had taken on a life of its own and Maciunas was not a part of it. He had never been a part of the political actions that resulted in zoning and code changes. After being beaten by thugs who claimed to be owed money, in the summer of 1976, Maciunas abandoned New York, moving to a farm he purchased in New Marlborough, Massachusetts. He had started to convert it to a new kind of artists’ cooperative before he died in Boston on May 9, 1978 of pancreatic cancer. Four days later, on May 13, friends gathered once again in the ground floor of 80 Wooster Street, Fluxhouse Coop No. 2, for a Fluxfuneral to celebrate the life of George Maciunas, founder of Fluxus and of SoHo.