In The Bronx, An Old Folks’ Home for Former Millionaires Becomes an Art Center for All

Since late April a historic retirement home for the formerly rich in the Bronx that was abandoned in the 1980s has been hosting a sprawling contemporary art exhibition, the beginning of a rebirth for a stately landmark whose founding was predicated on prolonging an illusory luxury for the once-wealthy.

This Side of Paradise” at the Andrew Freedman Home, a group show organized by non-profit pop-up exhibition experts No Longer Empty — and curated by Manon Slome, Charlotte Caldwell, Keith Schweitzer, and Lucy Lydon — spans both floors of the 1920s building, with two galleries on the ground level and 17 site-specific room installations on the second floor. The spacious galleries adjacent to the building’s main entrance include new and recent works responding to the building’s history and relationship to the surrounding Bronx neighborhood, including a series of casts of local school children’s arms by John Ahearn (above).

In the adjacent ground floor gallery, artists made use of materials found on-site — the Andrew Freedman Home, founded in the 1920s by the same-named millionaire to be a free, foundation-funded retirement community where down-on-their-luck millionaires could live out their days in a setting befitting their former wealth and social standing, until it closed in the 1980s and sat abandoned for decades — to create site-specific installations. Linda Cunningham re-purposed decrepit drywall found on-site, embedding it with window frames and transfers of historic photos of the Bronx (above).

On the second floor, 17 artists had each been given one of the rooms that was formerly occupied by a no-longer-rich person. Many of the resulting works commented either on the charismatic building’s unique history and that of the people who lived there, or on its relationship to the fluctuating Bronx neighborhood beyond its fenced-off grounds.

Legendary Bronx graffiti artists Daze (above) and Crash collaborated on a pair of rooms at the far end of the second-floor hallway, which included an abstracted subway map, a reference to the instrumental role Andrew Freedman played in building the city’s transportation system and bringing it to the Bronx.

By far the best-smelling installation in “This Side of Paradise” is Adam Parker Smith‘s “I Lost All My Money In the Great Depression and All I Got Was This Room” (2012, above), which included countless candies, cookies, and donuts, along with fake flowers and prop insects.

Street art duo How and Nosm contributed the spiky installation “Reflections” (2012, above), whose exact relationship to its setting remained unclear — despite its irrepressible coolness.

Cheryl Pope‘s haunting installation in a pair of dilapidated rooms — whose ceilings she covered with flaking fake gold leaf to match the crumbling and crackling paint on the walls — is one of the most hauntingly beautiful rooms in the show. Her evocations of fragile and faded social standing are eloquent and beautiful without being too specific or over-articulated.

The most perplexing inclusion in the exhibition is that of the late photo-journalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington, whose 2010 experimental video-diary from a decade of war reporting plays in a disheveled room made to look like the scene of an attack by guerrilla fighters like those in the video (pictured). The work is incredibly candid and moving, its relationship to the former retirement home setting perhaps best explained by their shared sense of absence and loss.

No part of the historic home that isn’t under renovation — the building is being converted into a bed and breakfast, and a community center — escaped the artistic makeover. Sofia Maldonado‘s mural series “La Cocina” (2012, detail above) fills the home’s massive ground floor kitchen, calling attention to the incredible machinery that once sustained this stately retirement home for the formerly rich.

This Side of Paradise” continues at the Andrew Freedman House (1125 Grand Concourse) through June 5.

— Benjamin Sutton