Question: At 251 West 13th Street, near Greenwich Avenue, there is an ornate building with two large plaques inside its vaulted entranceway. One identifies the building as the location of some church, and the other has an essay on it describing the building as, among other things, "a metaphor concerning molecular physics" and a collision between a 19th-century building and a 20th-century building. What in the world is this place?So states the website of Robert Delford Brown - the controversial artist who passed away last month. His site states he is the "man who brought good taste into building destruction with his 1967-1996 masterwork the Great Building Crackup."
Answer: Welcome to the wonderful world of Robert Delford Brown, artist and founder of the First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, a self-made religion devoted to laughter, art and the road to Nevada (Nirvana, says Mr. Brown, is too hard to find). Mr. Brown, 64, started the religion in 1964 as a stunt to attract attention to his first New York City art exhibit, a display of 3,600 pounds of meat in a local cooler. (Ah, the 60's.) He billed the show as "the grand opening services" of his new religion and promised "startling spiritual, sexual and esthetic revelations." He has been spreading his doctrine of Orthodox Paganism (its two commandments: live, and do not eat cars) ever since. Mr. Brown, a smiling prophet who sometimes preaches in a clown's wig and rubber nose, bought the building in 1967, and asked an architect, Paul Rudolph, to renovate in 1971. The "collision" refers to the juxtaposition of the new design to the original 1888 design by Richard Morris Hunt. Mr. Brown lives on the second floor, or in Temple of Hilarity, as it is known to the converted.
Mr. Brown,in an obituary in the New York Times this past Saturday, died March 24th in Wilmington, North Carolina. Mr. Brown founded a religion as part of his art exhibits, and:
in 1967 the church got a home, a former New York City branch library building at 251 West 13th Street in Greenwich Village, built in 1887 and designed by the Beaux-Arts architect Richard Morris Hunt. Mr. Brown hired the Modernist architect Paul Rudolph to redesign the entrance and the interior, creating a purposeful clash between the old and the new that Mr. Brown called “The Great Building Crack-Up.” He lived in the building until 1997, staging art exhibitions and happenings there. “This is a Dada improvisation, an architectural improvisation, a Dada gesture,” Mr. Brown told Mr. Bloch. He called the building “an architectural doodle.”According to Mr. Brown, “I decided that by colliding a 19th century building with a 20th century building something might happen that would be akin to colliding sub-atomic particles in a cyclotron… The method which I chose to accomplish this feat was to introduce a live architect, Paul Rudolph, to a dead architect, Richard Morris Hunt. I knew the bricks would fly…This renovation was one of the first attempts at contemporizing an old building in New York City. It has consequently been very influential, but I was looking for something more.”
A writer who once visited the place described it as a "building that looks from the outside like a nineteenth century library or a church, and on the inside more like a boat, than a house. Everywhere one turns are surprises. Gangways, platforms, staircases, brick walls, partitions, a tremendously high ceiling, a roof garden, tapestries, art objects, goblins, sculptures, ceramics, quilts, paintings, materials draped, ropes and strings and cords strung in the second floor in space...any moment one expects that a happening might take place, dancers might appear or something very daring, unusual, wild and surreal might happen. And in fact it sometimes does, because RDB is an old hand in Happenings.."
Originally purchased in 1967, Brown intended it to "be completed in 1982, at which time a hole will be cut into the roof and the entire structure will be filled with concrete-making the largest trompe l'oeill sculpture in the world."
A video of Mr. Brown explaining his idea can be found here.
In the 1997 Brown sold his beloved “Building Crackup,” stating “because of cyberspace, real estate is dead now.” As described later in the New York Times, the building was purchased by television writer Tom Fontana who began in May of 1997 to undo much of Rudolph's work with the help of Ronald Bentley of B Five Studio. At the time the building:
"had largely been gutted to create multiple levels. There was lots of Mylar and plenty of smoked glass and glass bricks that let in some light but not the view. The myriad staircases were pure ''Brady Bunch'' -- made from planks connected only by the skimpiest metal tubing."In the end, the building that was meant by Mr. Brown to represent a collision between the old and the new has been transformed yet again by a new owner. Mr. Brown, who saw art as a temporary experience, and believed "everything is Art, everyone is an Artist, there is no Not Art" would not have been surprised by the result. The art project that began as a radical juxtiposition - a dissonance - has continued albeit in an evolved state. Rudolph's space has been preserved but the materiality has changed according to whim.
The building has been desgnated National Register Number Greenwich Village Historic District: #79001604