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Renovation for a Famously Disheveled Art Haven

By David DunlapRewire the place, of course. Build new bathrooms. Fix the roof. Widen the exit stairs. Expand the sculpture studio. And get rid of those noisy, window-mounted air-conditioners in the delicate fanlights of the second-floor gallery.But by all means, preserve the ghosts.That is the philosophy guiding a renovation that will begin next month at the 111-year-old American Fine Arts Society Building at 215 West 57th Street, home of the Art Students League of New York. This anomalous hive of artistic activity in Midtown is an atmospheric and official landmark for which the word venerable — and the word dilapidated — might have been coined."The last major project here was the installation of an elevator in the mid-to-late 50's," said Ira Goldberg, executive director of the league, which teaches drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking. He seemed almost proud of the fact."We have a real mandate not to change the place," Mr. Goldberg said. "The membership doesn't want the ambience to change. There are ghosts here which, if you walk around the building long enough, are palpable."Unfortunately, none appeared, even flickeringly, during a recent visit. Not William Merritt Chase, Daniel Chester French, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Paul Manship, Georgia O'Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, George Grosz, Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, Ben Shahn, Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, Mark Rothko, Paul Cadmus, Jackson Pollock, Romare Bearden or Roy Lichtenstein.But it was easy to imagine their presence, like palimpsest on the old wainscot walls, in studios they would have little trouble recognizing.O'Keeffe, for instance, studied with Chase in a fourth-floor studio washed in north light. "Instructors and students today not only covet that glorious light but also believe themselves connected to an artistic pedigree by working there," said Stephanie Cassidy, the league's archivist.There are more tangible connections to the past: gas-jet wall sconces, a well-preserved coal-fired burner and brass doorknobs stamped with the initials A F A S. The American Fine Arts Society, of which the league was a founding member, commissioned the building from Henry J. Hardenbergh, architect of the Plaza Hotel and the Dakota Apartments on West 72nd Street.The need for renovation is particularly obvious on a rainy day. "This is our drainage system," Mr. Goldberg said, pointing to a plastic bucket under a dripping skylight outside Studio No. 13.The 57th Street building will close after classes on Sunday to permit a $7.9 million renovation and repair of basic mechanical and structural systems. This is the first of a three-part, $15 million project that is eventually to reclaim the voluminous Vanderbilt Gallery, which has been a studio for a half century, for use as a public exhibition hall."This could be one of the grandest gallery spaces in New York," Mr. Goldberg declared. The column-free, 4,000-square-foot room, modeled on the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris, has a skylight ceiling 26 feet high.George Washington Vanderbilt, a grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and the builder of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., gave the gallery to the American Fine Arts Society in 1892 as a $100,000 Christmas present.It was used by the Society of American Artists, the National Academy of Design, the National Sculpture Society and others. The gallery was converted to a studio after World War II, Mr. Goldberg said, to accommodate the crush of students attending under the G.I. Bill of Rights.Public exhibitions are now held in a second-floor room that was originally a lecture and dining hall of the Architectural League of New York. It has three arched leaded-glass windows and, hidden behind a false wall, a six-and-a-half-foot mantelpiece of carved oak and pink marble. But with only 2,000 square feet of space, it is inadequate for shows organized by curators, Mr. Goldberg said.Reopening the Vanderbilt Gallery will mean losing studio space, so two new studios are to be built atop the one-story midblock portion of the building, invisible from the street. The cost of restoring the gallery is estimated at $2.2 million. The new studios would cost $2.5 million. The building would also be made accessible to the disabled. With contingency allowances and operating costs, the total construction bill would come to $15 million. The design is by Kossar & Garry Architects.The league has the money for the first phase, Mr. Goldberg said, but must raise the balance. It also hopes to raise $9 million for scholarships, for building maintenance, for an endowment to pay instructors and to sponsor exhibitions and lectures in the Vanderbilt Gallery.Until September, most classes will be held in 575 Eighth Avenue, at 38th Street, where the league is renting 10,500 square feet of space. Sculpture classes will be held at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, 323 West
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