Donald Judd’s SoHo Loft Opens After $23 Million Makeover

Donald Judd bought 101 Spring Street, an 1870 cast-iron building, in 1968 for $68,000.

He stripped the dilapidated building down to its plaster walls and wood floors, illegally removing distractions like fire sprinklers.

Then Judd (1928-1994) spent decades turning the spaces into a showcase for his art and a place to rest his head on a bed made of wood planks. It’s carefully related to the colored tubes by Dan Flavin that march across the room, echoing the rhythm of a gorgeous row of windows.

During the past three years, the building has been stripped to its cast-iron frame and reconstructed to conserve the artworks, now worth millions, and ensure safety and security.

It’s an extraordinary achievement costing $23 million, paid by the Judd Foundation and government grants.

The building and the art together form a complete work of art, one that makes the empty volumes of the rooms almost palpable.

You see why Judd so insistently controlled the way his boxlike constructions relate to floors, walls, ceilings and other objects.

By Appointment

Its unadorned austerity takes us back to the 1960s, when Judd and other artists began colonizing empty 19th-century loft buildings in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood as industrial workshops fled in the face of economic change and a threatened highway that was never built.

Now the public can visit (by appointment) the five full-floor rooms that include furniture and artworks by Judd, as well as works by artists he collected, including Claes Oldenburg, Ad Reinhardt and Lucas Samars.

Judd wrote contemptuously of architects, yet his artwork owes a deep debt to architectural thinking. On the fourth floor, he applied wood to the ceiling so that both floor and ceiling would read as planes floating past the colorful circles of Frank Stella’s monumental “Gur II” on the wall.

These are subtleties, but Judd saw them as precedents for sculptures that seem prosaic on first glance but heighten the perception of the spaces they form.

Two of Judd’s metal cubes -- one with open ends, the other solid -- bring majestic calm to the third floor.

The 10-foot-tall windows of rippled antique-style glass turn the cast-iron scrollwork and fire escapes of SoHo into shimmering abstractions while veiling the upscale shopping bustle Judd probably would have deplored.

Aesthetic Hammer

Judd and his family lived simply, with a well-worn restaurant stove and a freestanding commercial sink in the open kitchen displaying its plumbing.

Museum-quality air conditioning, security systems and fire protection have now been added, but carefully concealed.

“I was the aesthetic hammer,” said Flavin Judd, Donald’s son, on a recent walkthrough. Judd, board member Robert C. Beyer, Architecture Research Office and the cast-iron restoration architect Walter B. Melvin wrestled with a wide range of arcane but essential aesthetic issues.

Flavin insisted that a contractor relocate a fire sprinkler that was off by an inch because he knew it would matter to his father.

Builders removed 1,300 pieces of cast iron for restoration or recasting by the Robinson Iron foundry in Alabama. Sparkling glass disks were reinstalled in cast iron sidewalk window frames, bringing daylight into two handsome basement levels of foundation offices designed by ARO.

Sublime, Authentic

Yet nothing appears over-scrubbed. As he wished, the objects seem to belong -- as if they had landed without conscious effort or intention.

In a world where authenticity seems elusive, 101 Spring Street is a sublime corrective.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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