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Palace Poorhouse for the Formerly Rich to Open Up in Art Exhibition

Joy Bergmann Mar 21, 2012

A ruthless snob, Andrew Freedman would have a conniption fit if he could see the egalitarian bustle currently consuming the Andrew Freedman Home, an imposing limestone mansion at 1125 Grand Concourse built in 1924 as a refuge for well-to-do senior citizens who had lost their fortunes but not their taste for luxury. Fortunately for him and the community artists hard at work in the space, Freedman died in 1915.

Starting April 4th the Home will open to the public as This Side of Paradise, an art installation and free event series running through June 5th. Exhibition organizers say the show is a decisive first step in transforming the property into an inclusive incubator for creativity, education and entrepreneurship in the Bronx.

“We’re taking unused space and using it to unlock the creativity and resourcefulness of Bronx residents, creating cultural and economic activity everyone can rally around, “ says Walter Puryear, project manager for the building’s owner, Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council. The organization currently runs multiple social service programs – GED classes, Head Start, a food pantry and more – on the ground floor. An onsite bed-and-breakfast upstairs is set to open in the coming weeks as both a viable business and hospitality-industry training program. Green tech retrofitting apprenticeships are also in the works, using the mansion as a training ground.

But first, artists from across the borough and U.S. are using the massive estate as a canvas. Manon Slome, exhibition curator and president of No Longer Empty, recently led a tour of the artistic work in progress noting that a restoration of the home’s former grandeur was not in the budget. “You accept what you’ve got and work with it,” she said. What’s important is, “developing ways for the community to connect here through visual art, dance, cooking, film, spoken-word, hip-hop, a choir, you name it.”

Peeling ocher paint and construction dust cannot disguise the decrepit glamour of the place. Its 14-foot ceilings, marble fireplaces, mahogany-paneled library and tiled bathrooms retain a hint of its gin-soaked, Jazz Age heyday. Slome says the F. Scott Fitzgerald – derived show title is intentionally ironic. “We’re asking:  Which side is paradise? Plenty of local artists and Bronxites believe it’s right here.”

The residence’s backstory should be enough to inspire even the most jaded New Yorkers to take the D train straight to its front gate for a gawk.

Andrew Freedman was a financier, real estate magnate, back-room political dealer, driving force for the first subway system, owner of the New York Giants baseball team, puncher of journalists asking too many questions, lifelong bachelor and someone who believed that a sudden plunge from abundance to poverty was a far worse tragedy than lifelong lack.

His sister Isabella concurred, spearheading construction of the Home in accordance with Freedman’s will. The family’s magnanimity extended to those like themselves:  gentlefolk accustomed to luxury and refinement, whose worries should extend only to which fine outfit to wear to dinner, not whether there would be dinner.

A 1933 New Yorker article detailed the Home’s gracious lifestyle ­– 50 staff overseeing gourmet meals, hairdressing, cigar distribution, dance parties and card games for 129 residents – and the rigorous admissions process, culminating in an appearance before the selection committee that included a Goldman Sachs partner and Chase Bank vice-president. Ahem.

Slome says the exhibition turns Freedman’s original intent of protecting his social class on its head. Artists like Laura Napier and Carmen Julia Hernandez will be using such exclusionary tactics as fodder for pieces including one called The Activity Committee. Several artists from the 1980s Fashion Moda scene including Daze, Crash, Lisa Kahane and John Ahearn are creating new work for the show. And photographer Sylvia Plachy will present her images of the Home’s waning years as a ritzy residence before its endowment ran out in the 1980s.

A Blade of Grass, a new foundation, made the project its first grantee. Additional funding has come from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation and The Robert Lehman Foundation.

This Side of Paradise opens with a “Speakeasy Paradise” party on April 4th at 8:30. The free exhibition will be open Thursdays through Sundays from 1pm – 7pm from April 5th to June 5th. The Andrew Freedman Home is at 1125 Grand Concourse at 166th Street next to the MTA’s 167th Street stop on the B/D line.

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