At MoMA Panel, the Judd Foundation Conjures 1970s Soho

101 Spring Street. (Photo by Andrea Steele-Judd Foundation Archives/© Judd Foundation)

Introducing a panel last night at the Museum of Modern Art, Rainer Judd recalled the 1970s as “a kind of magical time in New York City, when artists.” She interrupted herself. “This is second-hand,” she said, “because I was only, like, five, so excuse me if I get it wrong—but artists took over a neighborhood. It was fairly empty with the exception of artists.”

Ms. Judd was talking, of course, about Soho, where in 1968 her father, Donald Judd, bought a cast-iron building at 101 Spring Street to use as a home and studio. The neighborhood was nearly vacant at the time, except for ramshackle manufacturing businesses. Her brother, Flavin, was born that same year, and she was born two years later. The 101 Spring building is set to reopen in about a year, following extensive renovations by the Judd Foundation, which had organized the evening’s event, “An Artists’ World: SoHo in the 1970s.”

Though Judd père was partially responsible for turning the area into an art world center, he had conflicted feelings about that success, said Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program, in a pre-panel lecture. For one thing, he was not such a fan of the name, which riffed on London’s eponymous district, once telling a magazine:

This area was done for when they started calling it Soho. It’s a press agent’s name. Typical suburban schmaltz. If we had known what was going to happen to this area, we would have never have moved here. But we put so much money and energy into the place now we can’t get rid of it.

And that was in 1974! J. Crew, Old Navy, Prada and the like arrived years later. In the 1990s another generation of art dealers and artists would leave it for dead, decamping to Chelsea. “You can imagine what [Judd] would think of Soho today!” Dr. Dolkart quipped.

The Soho of the 1970s holds an incredible allure: artists living illegally and cheaply in those gorgeous cast-iron, marble and terracotta buildings. Art critic Barbara Rose tried to dispatch that fantasy. “The basic reason we were all there was because of poverty,” she said. “Having that in common created a community. You couldn’t really eat anywhere except at each other’s houses.” She lived in the section of Soho that overlapped with Little Italy, “which was totally controlled by the Mafia. It should be said here, in favor of the Mafia, the neighborhood was wonderful.”

The panelists, led by MoMA’s chief architecture and design curator, Barry Bergdoll, marveled about the days when garbage pickup was nonexistent and residential amenities like hot water and doorbells had to be engineered from scratch. Ms. Rose hired Philip Glass and Richard Serra to handle her plumbing and wiring. (“The amazing thing is that it never fell apart!”) Judd’s then-wife, the dancer and chef Julie M. Finch, told the audience, “To get dill I had to walk all the way up to 8th Street!” Dean & Deluca arrived in 1977.

Urban planner Robert Moses’s desire to plow the Lower Manhattan Expressway through the area also helped bring people together. Scores of artists, including Judd and Ms. Finch, united in opposition to the plan, and the latter pegged The New York Times writer Grace Glueck as a hero in that movement, when she became the first person at the paper to write about the artists’ opposition for the paper. Moses was defeated.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, created in 1965, also successfully protected many of the area’s buildings against developers—”It was a really gutsy place,” Dr. Dolkart said of the agency. “They did a lot of things that, if they had thought twice about them, they might not have done.” (It’s a different place these days.)

Those protections created a safe haven for an art community to thrive, but it slowly changed, as all neighborhoods do. Earlier in the century, Greenwich Village artists had to make way for what one termed “artistically inclined shirt merchants and atmosphere-crazy shoe manufacturers,” Dr. Dolkart said. In Soho, they were pushed out by wealthy creative types and white-collar professionals. The cheap hardware stores of Canal Street, where Dan Flavin could pick up fluorescent lightbulbs on the cheap, have also largely vanished.

Is there an artist community like 1970s Soho thriving elsewhere today? Ms. Rose mentioned Bushwick and Berlin, which clearly have burgeoning communities. But those areas are markedly more diffuse than Soho of yesteryear. It seems unlikely any one neighborhood will ever again be so vital to the latest developments in art. Today’s art world is too large and spread out and global for that. The next major artists seems as likely to arise from Brussels as they are from Beijing or Mumbai.

Dr. Dolkart seemed to be the most optimistic of the bunch. “We can decry the changes that have occurred to Soho,” he said, “but thanks to the artists and the historians who rallied to save the neighborhood, the buildings are still there and the area will surely evolve again, perhaps into another exciting and unique urban place.”

So, Soho is dead. Long live Soho.

At MoMA Panel, the Judd Foundation Conjures 1970s Soho