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Former Barneys Home to Enter Next Life As Himalayan Art Museum

Andy Warhol, who used to dress the windows at Lord & Taylor before becoming the poster child of the Pop Art revolution, once made the observation that “when you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums.”

With this casual remark, Warhol foreshadowed the emergence of today’s culture of mass consumption, in which boy bands are created, packaged and marketed with the efficiency of an assembly line, and every museum has an obligatory museum-store tacked on to propel dedicated consumers toward the manifest destiny of our time: a van Gogh on every mug.

But at 150-154 West 17th Street, culture appears to be reclaiming some lost territory from the omnipresent forces of commerce. The building there, which is famous for having housed Barneys’ women’s store from 1986 until 1998, is about to evolve into a Himalayan art museum, lending a different kind of prophetic weight to Warhol’s pronouncement.

And that pronouncement, quoted by Lisa Schubert, director of the future Rubin Museum of Art, was used to open the discussion of the forthcoming museum’s plans at the Community Board 4 meeting on July 24. The museum-which aims to begin construction on the former Barneys site within the next several months and hopes to open in about a year and a half with 20,000 square feet of gallery space-came before the board to present its plans and discuss a zoning variance it might need to raise the ceiling in the rear of the building by 10 feet, in order to have adequate display room for some of its larger pieces.

The museum, which purchased the six-story converted apartment building at auction, plans to retain many of the existing architectural elements, most importantly its pièce de résistance : a spiral staircase inside the six-floor atrium. The stairs and atrium, conceived by a design team that included renowned European designer Andrée Putman, were installed during the site’s metamorphosis from brownstone apartments to Barneys.

The current conversion from former department store (the space has remained vacant since Barneys’ departure) to museum is being handled by Richard Blinder, a partner in Beyer, Blinder, Belle, the architectural firm famous for its 1998 restoration of the Grand Central Terminal. Mr. Blinder plans to create a large, uncluttered space at the entrance, using stone floors and wood elements to invoke a “sea of tranquillity” to help the visitors’ transition from manic city streets to a “peaceful, Tibetan … soothing” atmosphere. Once duly decompressed, visitors can climb the spiral staircase-which, museum press material explains, will serve “as a metaphor for traversing the levels of meaning in Himalayan art”-to view the works on display around the atrium on the five floors above. The collection, which boasts more than 1,200 paintings, sculptures and ritual objects from countries such as Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, was started 25 years ago by the museum’s creators, Donald and Shelley Rubin, the founders of a large managed health-care company named Multiplan.

Board 4 was happy to welcome the Rubin Museum of Art into the neighborhood, requesting only that residents be given a discount on the admission price, an idea to which Ms. Schubert appeared amenable. “I’m delighted that these splendid pieces of world art will be available to West Side art lovers,” board member Adam Honigman told The Observer . “I only hope that discounted admission will be made available to low-income [families], students and seniors who live in our area.”

Meanwhile, as Barneys’ former self on West 17th Street is discovering its spiritual side, its present-day incarnation on Madison Avenue is, well, over it. Barneys’ creative director and The Observer ‘s resident fashion guru, Simon Doonan, says he dabbled with the Zen vibe a few years ago, but has since transcended it and has no plans for rebirth anytime soon. ” AbFab was the nail in the coffin of the New Age trend. It sort of made the marriage of New Age and fashion really ridiculous,” he told The Observer , referring to AbFab anti-heroine Eddy’s brief foray into meditative chanting. Barneys is about “retail and glamour and style and making people look good,” Mr. Doonan continued. “We wouldn’t presume to focus on their spiritual lives. Our mantra at Barneys is … we chant, but we’re chanting: ‘Taste, luxury, humor!'”

-Karina Lahni

Aug. 6: Board 3, Jasa/Green Residence, 200 East Fifth Street, 6:30 p.m., 533-5300.

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