NEW YORK – All of her neighbors are gone, forced out. Now Elizabeth Sargent, the last holdout tenant of Carnegie Hall's towers, is preparing to leave the affordable studios that for more than a century housed some of America's most brilliant creative artists.
Red scaffolding surrounds Carnegie Hall as the city-owned towers are being gutted this summer in a $200 million renovation that includes adding a youth music program. Celebrities like Robert De Niro and Susan Sarandon had fought to save the homes, petitioning the city not to "displace these treasured artists and master teachers."
Musicians, painters, dancers and actors thrived in the two towers built by 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie just after the hall went up in 1891. The towers — one 12 stories high, the other 16 — housed more than 100 studios, some with special skylights installed to give painters the northern light they prize.
Over the years, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Robert Redford took acting lessons here and Lucille Ball had voice coaching. James Dean studied scripts and Leonard Bernstein, music.
Women once lined up on the street to visit an alluring resident — the young Marlon Brando. His studio space on the eighth floor was demolished in early July.
Sargent, a one-time dancer noted for her boldly sexual poetry, is now in her 80s and in remission from cancer. For 40 years, she's lived on the ninth floor of the red brick southern tower above the famed stage of the 119-year-old landmark.
She has until Aug. 31 to clear out.
Sargent and other residents have waged a years-long legal battle against New York City, the Carnegie Hall Corp., and a powerful, modern-day philanthropist, Sanford "Sandy" Weill, the former chairman and CEO of Citigroup. The refurbished towers will soon house an education program named for Weill, Carnegie Hall's chairman and benefactor, plus other administrative spaces, according to Carnegie artistic director Clive Gillinson.
When Carnegie Hall announced the project in May 2007, 18 studios were occupied and dozens of other artists rented teaching space.
Editta Sherman, a 98-year-old photographer, had a studio that's still filled with portraits of Hollywood and Broadway stars. She's not been allowed to sleep there since early July and must also remove her belongings by Aug. 31.
Known by her neighbors as the "Duchess of Carnegie Hall," Sherman vowed two years ago that she'd never leave. "They'll have to drag me out," she said.
"My whole life has been here!" said Sherman. A resident since 1949, she raised five children in a studio with 25-foot ceilings and a view of Central Park. Her rent was frozen at $650 a month.
Finally, the two women signed agreements with Carnegie in exchange for new midtown Manhattan apartments where rents will be subsidized by Carnegie for the rest of their lives.
"I'd rather live in these rundown rooms than any new apartment in a glass tower," said the reclusive Sargent, speaking to a reporter by telephone from behind her studio door. She reached a hand into the hallway to retrieve a bag of groceries left on the knob by a former neighbor.
An Associated Press team toured the construction site and obtained exclusive photos and video of the tower renovation, zeroing in on controversial spots — historic parts of the building being torn down.
The old stone-and-cast-iron staircases and some original walls will survive, according to architectural plans for the towers obtained by the AP.
What's left inside is just a shadow of the bustling labyrinth of corridors, stairways and studios where modern American dance took its first steps, created by choreographers like George Balanchine and Martha Graham.
Debris now spills down a stairway leading to a rooftop studio. "SAVE" is scrawled on a wall in red, with a line to guide workers when they chop off a ceiling and skylight built in the 1890s.
In 1960, developers wanted to tear down the entire Carnegie Hall building to construct a high-rise on the site. But violinist Isaac Stern led a successful public campaign against demolition and the city bought the property for $5 million, creating the Carnegie Hall Corp. to run it.
"It's Weill's money, but it's our history — and this is the endgame here," said actor Billy Lyons, 29, assistant to acting coach Wynn Handman, who had worked from a Carnegie studio since the early 1980s, training actors including Denzel Washington, Mira Sorvino and Michael Douglas.
The towers will be rebuilt as new music education spaces and classrooms, archives and administrative offices for the Carnegie Hall staff.
"They're erasing every piece of our cultural history, and it's not all for the children," said Lyons. "It's for Sandy Weill events."
Weill and his wife, Joan, have pledged $25 million toward the project — which includes a lavish rooftop terrace with a nearby dining area accessible by a glass elevator — to be named after the couple, according to a confidential legal document obtained by the AP. It's signed by Weill, his wife and Gillinson.
The rooftop plans in particular have drawn strong opposition. Preservation advocate Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City told the Landmarks Restoration Commission last year that the towers' roofscape "should be sacrosanct under the landmarks law."
But Carnegie Hall Corp. won commission approval for plans that preserve little inside the two structures. The landmarks commissioners are appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ex-officio member of Carnegie's board. The city and the state have committed $50 million in taxpayer money for the project, with another $56 million coming from a Carnegie Hall bond sale.
"The main motivation is to create a music education center where we can work with schoolchildren and talented artists," Gillinson told the AP. He said the 60,000 square feet of studios will now be available for programs run by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, in partnership with the city's Department of Education and The Juilliard School. They will teach music to urban children and, by computer and satellite, to youngsters around the globe.
"This will benefit tens of thousands of people and upset a small number of people, a very small number of people," Gillinson said. "Of course I'm sorry, and of course I'm upset, and of course we've looked after the people."