Can This Haring Be Saved?

USE CHEN haring ryanishungry at flickr.jpg A portion of the Keith Haring mural that winds its way up a stairwell at 218 West 108th Street. | COURTESY: RYANISHUNGRY/ FLICKR.COM
A portion of the Keith Haring mural that winds its way up a stairwell at 218 West 108th Street. | COURTESY: RYANISHUNGRY/ FLICKR.COM

BY JACKSON CHEN | City Councilmember Mark Levine is calling for landmarking designation of a threatened Keith Haring mural that dances up the interior stairwell of a residential building on West 108th Street. But even many sympathetic preservationists feel it’s an uphill battle, despite the late artist’s renown.

The mural, in which Haring drew on the familiar lively figures well known from his work, is located inside 218 West 108th Street, a property that previously housed a Catholic youth organization called the Grace House. According to a 2007 New York Times story, the mural was painted in 1983 or 1984 after Haring was invited to the Grace House several times.

The building’s current owner, the Church of the Ascension at 221 West 107th Street, has since switched the building’s use to residential. Faced with financial challenges, however, the church is now looking to sell off the property and is fielding offers from developers, according to Levine.

“We assume if the goal is revenue, there would be a temptation for luxury housing,” the councilmember said. “I would hope that it can remain a place for low-income people in the neighborhood to find apartments.”

Levine said the request for designation has been submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but noted that it would be a complicated process.

“This is an unusual case,” Levine said of the mural. “There are provisions in the landmarks law for landmarking interiors, but landmarks law doesn’t provide for landmarking of private residences.”

To resolve both hurdles, the councilmember proposed occasional public tours that would not only invite the public to experience the mural firsthand, but also meet the criteria for interior landmarks.

But preservationists are not confident that the Landmarks Preservation Commission would heed the call for the mural’s designation.

“Typically speaking, interiors that are landmarked are traditionally open to the public,” Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said. “It’s a toughie, especially since it’s such a site-specific artwork. Even the removal of it would be difficult.”

Bankoff added that landmarking may not be the best tool to preserve the mural and said the optimal outcome might be an interested individual coming in and purchasing it, despite the potential difficulties of removing it.

And according to Peg Breen, the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s president, the LPC rarely designates landmarks over a religious institution’s objections.

“The odds of having LPC intervene at this point and landmarking it are pretty remote,” she said. “It’s a church-owned building and they have other needs for the property, so I think it would be extraordinary if the LPC acted on it.”

Kate Wood, the president of Landmark West!, explained that the designation hinges on whether the interior is “customarily accessible to the public.” As an example, Wood said, the Osborne Apartments at 205 West 57th Street had its lobby removed from the LPC’s docket of consideration because there were doubts that a residential apartment building lobby met the “accessible to the public” criterion.

While the councilmember acknowledged that landmarking interiors is a steep climb, Levine said the effort may help to increase the awareness for a mural that even he and other Haring aficionados were unaware of.

“If the landmarking doesn’t prevail, I’m still optimistic we can keep up the pressure to ensure that this wonderful cultural legacy is preserved,” Levine said.

In terms of alternative solutions, Breen said she would like to see an art expert go in to evaluate the mural for its condition, its material, and its possibility of remaining intact.

“Rather than focusing on landmarks, people who are really interested in it should try to get a conservator to go in there pro-bono and see it,” she suggested.

Breen appreciates the appeal and value of the mural created by such a well-known artist, but said putting effort into landmarking it would distract from more viable ways of saving it.

“There are unfortunately a lot of reasons why this is not likely to be landmarked in place,” Breen said. “It would be lovely if there was a peaceful way to do it.”

The church’s pastor, Reverend Dan Kearney, was unable to be reached for comment. Church staff explained that they would not be offering comment or public viewings of the mural.