“I’ll never forget, I went to the first cocktail party—I can’t claim it was the first, but it was the first I heard about—but they were only charging 50 bucks,” said Randall Bourscheidt, the genius and dishy president of the Alliance for the Arts. “It was at some gallery that looked out on the High Line, and I went with Amanda Burden, now chairman of the Planning Commission. We walked in—and there was Edward Norton. And we all went, ‘Cool!’”
On April 10, thanks to its unrelenting social wattage and the drive of its founders, the High Line will have its long-awaited groundbreaking ceremony.
So Robert Hammond and his crew at the High Line seduced the city, fought down the railway company and, as a byproduct, made West Chelsea landholders quite happy. But the newest cultural entrepreneur on the block, Mr. Hammond’s—and Gifford Miller’s—schoolmate at Princeton, has embarked on a plan of even more absurd difficulty.
Barbara C. Romer’s project seems deceptively simple: She wants to build a modern version of London’s Globe Theater in a fort on Governors Island.
So move over, Brooke Astor and David Rockefeller! The new cultural entrepreneurs have created a new model for enacting change in the city.
Now, instead of the billionaires like Mr. Rockefeller—the man who got President Ronald Reagan to give the Customs House to the Museum of the American Indian over dinner—we’ve got a couple of kids from Princeton who are rebuilding the city, one celeb-filled party at a time.
Instead of assembling the doyennes of society and their checkbooks in a stuffy, closed-off Park Avenue apartment, they get Amy Sacco to throw a fête at Bungalow 8. And all you really have to do is trot out vegan technophile Moby—the truffle pig of mass-cultural capital.
ON MARCH 8, 35-YEAR-OLD MS. ROMER threw her first celeb-studded pop-cult seduction, after her first advisory board meeting at Soho House. “It was pretty easy, and pretty small,” said Celerie Kemble of the gala—she’s been pitching in. “Everybody involved knew 10 to 20 people who seemed appropriate or interested.”
“She’s a friend of ours,” Ms. Kemble said of Bungalow owner Amy Sacco, “and has been involved in the High Line, and is also a great advocate. She puts herself forward when there’s something she believes in. She’s a great person to brainstorm with about who are the right people to be in a project.”
So yes: Moby? Check! Bungalow? Yup! Celerie Kemble? It is so on!
Ms. Romer has a gorgeous model—for which she raised a bit more than $300,000 in architect’s fees from an anonymous donor—and more energy than an office of bureaucrats.
She’s got the support of downtown’s influential Community Board 1—“Overall, we’re very much in favor of cultural uses,” said Board 1 chair Julie Menin about Governors Island by phone from her vacation in Colorado this week.
She’s got a partnership with London’s Globe Theater.
And she’s got Philip Seymour Hoffman—the very embodiment of Cultural Seriousness—on her advisory board.
What she doesn’t have—at all—is the federal government, and their fort. The stuffy landmarks folks aren’t sold either—they’re “clutching their pearls,” as one culture maven put it. And so Ms. Romer has taken it to the people and their cultural elite—actors!
“We didn’t have that many celebrities,” said Mr. Hammond of his efforts on the High Line. “She has a much larger boldface-name contingent. Also, the nature of her project? That inherently makes more sense. Celebrities don’t spend a lot of time in parks—whereas they do appear in Shakespeare.”
And so there was, for one, Bebe Neuwirth at the party—brought by producer Eric Falkenstein—who was as taken as anyone else with Ms. Romer. “Very intelligent. Very eloquent. Very enthusiastic,” Ms. Neuwirth said. “It’s contagious! Her enthusiasm is contagious. That’s a very good quality to have. She doesn’t really need it, but she has it—the idea kind of sells itself.”
Ms. Romer’s “taking it to another level,” Mr. Hammond said.
“Robert has been a good friend,” Ms. Romer said. “And I’ve clearly watched them.”
“I just want to be clear,” the leggy Ms. Neuwirth said, “that I am not in favor of this new theater because I want to do plays, do Shakespeare. I just think it would be a great thing for New York City.”
GORGEOUS GOVERNORS ISLAND—about one-fifth the size of Central Park and much closer to downtown—was sold to New York by the U.S. for $1 in January of 2003.
Over the decades, the island has been passed around like a bong in a frat house. It once was the state’s; in 1800, it became federal; in 1966, it became the Coast Guard’s; in 2001, the forts and their 22 surrounding acres became a national monument; and in 2003, it came under the care of the National Parks Service. More than half of the rest of the 172-acre island is built of excavation from the Lexington Avenue subway dig.
Those acres are maintained by the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, which in May will be in receipt of proposals by developers and schemers to turn it into a destination island. (The city has decided that residential use will not be considered—though picture it! Millionaires’ Island: only 225 buildings on it, and nary a homeless person in sight. Ah, well …. )
“There are going to be few parties that could really assemble a winning position,” said Meredith Oppenheim, a submitting developer who also works with her brother, Chad Oppenheim, a well-known Miami architect. “People are going to disqualify themselves based on the robust number of requirements.”
Among those expected to turn in proposals is Bruce Becker, whose firm, Becker + Becker Associates Inc., did the largest project on Roosevelt Island: the rehabilitation of the Octagon, a former insane asylum in which Mae West was once a prisoner, into a high-end and highly green residential building. “I’m currently sort of developing different concepts,” Mr. Becker said. “If I’m confident I’ve got a winner, I’ll be submitting on the 10th of May. I’m enormously distracted about it—I can’t stop thinking about it!”
Others are proposing smaller projects, particularly with an eye to being in the mix so as to work on group projects after the winning teams are selected. Jay M. Schippers, for one, is proposing bed-and-breakfast-like hotel uses of some of the existing buildings.
Other expected proposers include the “Global Country of World Peace,” a project of the followers of His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Phoenix House, a chain of drug and alcohol treatment centers. Uh, yeah—destination: Rehab Island!
There is no proposal process for the 22 acres under National Parks Service control, however. On that north side of the island are its two national monuments, the round Castle Williams and the odd rectangle-within-a-star of Fort Jay, both built between 1794 and 1811.
Back in January 2005, the National Parks Service released a newsletter that recounted public hearings and explained their preliminary plans. Their “Alternative A” would be an educational park, devoted to “harbor defense themes,” a phrase possibly so chilling in its boringness as to induce at least an eight on the 15-point Glasgow Coma Scale. Castle Williams would become, unbelievably, a “Harbor Defense Museum.”
An “Alternative B” would also have a bit of history, but would create “an island-wide cultural experience” through collaboration with arts organizations.
“Alternative C” would turn the area into some sort of environmentalist something-or-other; the lawns of Fort Jay would host an “interactive educational water feature.”
In February 2005, The New York Times said that the National Parks Service Governors Island superintendent, Linda Neal, had described Barbara Romer’s Globe Theater plan as “exciting.” Clearly, it fits with her office’s Alternative B.
But this week, Ms. Neal said: “Well, we don’t have any formal relationship with [Ms. Romer]. She’s looking at buildings not only on Parks Service property but GIPEC property. It’s complicated,” she added. “We’re not there.”
Ms. Neal’s office is in building 107 on Governors Island; she is cater-corner from the GIPEC offices. (“In the nicer months,” she said, “we open the windows and yell to each other. It’s like Mayberry!”)
Ms. Neal talked about Ms. Romer’s project this way: “As you know, it’s gotten a lot of publicity. I think the thing it has done is raise people’s awareness of Governors Island, and got people thinking we need something special to happen out there. Her idea has been graphically depicted, and so a lot of people have gotten interested, because it’s the first visual proposal out there.”
But. “I think come soon after May 10—our Oscar night, when GIPEC opens their envelopes—there’ll be several proposals that’ll see the light of day and be showcased. Much like the World Trade Center when various proposals come out—that gets people thinking about what could be out there.”
Ah, life during wartime. Of course: Why wouldn’t the federal government want to plunk a tribute to the majesty of military greatness just a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center pit?
Even though we already have the Harbor Defense Museum at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn?
And even if the location is Castle Williams, the former holding center for Confederate prisoners of war—whose cannons have never even fired a shot?
MS. ROMER HAS JUST MOVED her own military fortifications for the New Globe Theater project from her Upper West Side apartment to a small office on the top floor of a building on Fifth Avenue, in the Flatiron district. A little sticker on the door of stylish Suite 914 reads “Kemble Interiors.”
Ms. Romer has a German accent with more than a hint of London to it. She grew up in Germany but went to high school in Ohio and got her doctorate in Cambridge. She wears cute glasses and black and is, as all reports indicate, extremely winning.
She also knows her local forts. “There’s Fort Wood, built in 1811, same year as Castle Wiliams. In 1886, we decided to put a huge French military sculpture on top of it—the Statue of Liberty? Nobody knows Fort Wood. We’re trying to elevate Castle Williams in the same way.”
She’s good, right? “Castle Clinton—same year, same architect—was turned into an opera house in the 1850’s that fit 6,000 people. There are precedents in taking military forts and repurposing them in New York.”
“The National Parks Service says they want to do what ‘America’ wants,” she said with cheer. Clearly, Ms. Romer plans to foment a particular want.
But wait. What if the new cultural entrepreneurs turned their attentions to, say, homelessness, or national health care? Or what if they shipped Moby over to Baghdad—couldn’t he use his downtown influence to fix up that bad scene? With their superhuman skills at organizing and fund-raising, isn’t it a little unfair for people like Robert Hammond and Barbara Romer to be mobilizing millions of dollars and all that energy for Shakespeare theaters and fruity little parks?
“How do you value having 100,000 kids a year having a beautiful day and a growing experience, and realizing they can be whatever they want to be?” Ms. Romer said. “How can you measure that?”
(And how can we measure Moby? “He’s great because when there’s something he cares about, he steps in quickly and puts as much out there to help it as he can,” said Celerie Kemble. “We had talked to him about it months before the project. He was very excited, because he is a big advocate of exciting use of public space. And he has lots of friends who are actors and involved in the theater. Again, there are so many people who couldn’t be more excited to see more public performance space come into the city.”)
Ms. Romer has just introduced a pledge campaign for the theater. Her philanthropic catalog offers naming opportunities for the administration building or the education building (which would lie across the border, in GIPEC-land) for $1 million or $2.5 million.
There are also 110 second-tier theater seats available for naming, at $7,500 each. “The Mayor sits to your left,” reads the offering plan, “Gwyneth Paltrow three seats to your right, and you could swear that that is the back of Dick Parsons’s head.” The cool-but-poor can buy in for a hundred bucks per restroom faucet.
But what do they get if they pay now? “They own the right to name”—for instance—“the green room,” Ms. Romer said. “So I have the piece of paper to say they owe that money. Then they get to be the ones to have first pick. Lucky them!
“This might sound strange,” she said, “but to me, looking at the castle and the proposal, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world. I mean, look at this.”
Now that Ms. Romer has the social oomph and soon will have those willing to pay in, what she needs next is the George Balanchine to her Lincoln Kirstein—an artistic director for her theater that will cement the excitement of actors. That will also sustain her parade of boldface names.
Because then what will the poor Park Service do? How will they refuse Al Pacino and Judy Dench?
And how long will it take her to win this war? “The good thing is, it was built for the War of 1812,” she said of the castle, or her castle, “so there’s a good anniversary coming up.
“O.K.,” she added, “that’s worst-case scenario.”
—additional reporting by Michael Calderone
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