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The Story Behind One of NYC's Most Mysterious Downtown Buildings and Its Longtime Owner

For decades, the six-story building at 190 Bowery, locally known as The Bank, was a mystery to New Yorkers. The Renaissance Revival-style building, covered in graffiti and grime, was often mistaken as abandoned. It stood unchanging as the surrounding streets morphed from rundown into one of the city’s most sought-after areas.

But unbeknownst to most passersby, famed photographer Jay Maisel called the 36,000-square-foot building, which once housed the Germania Bank, home with his wife and daughter from 1966 to 2015.

A 2008 New York Magazine profile shed more light on the landmarked relic and its unseen occupants—but it wasn’t until 2015, when the building was sold and news of Maisel’s move from the corner of Bowery and Spring streets broke, that we got a glimpse inside.

Now, a new documentary, Jay Myself, paints an intimate portrait of Maisel—his craft, his vast collection of objects, and the life he built in the fabled building—told by his protégé, photographer Stephen Wilkes.

Inside 190 Bowery where Maisel once kept his collection of objects in meticulously-organized cabinets.

“In many ways, The Bank was his greatest work of art. It had the most profound effect on almost anybody who physically went through it,” Wilkes told Curbed.

Maisel bought the building, which was designed by Robert Maynicke and completed in 1899, for just $102,000 in 1966 and sold it for a whopping $55 million in 2014—the transaction is said to be one of the greatest returns on investment in New York City real estate.

But its value goes far beyond the price tag. Aside from serving as a home for Maisel and his family for 49 years, it was his main work space and where he stored his massive collection of objects—negatives, batteries, colored glass bottles, and so on—in some 4,800 file cabinets. The acclaimed photographer, recreated the 72-room property with his collection and photographic creations.

“I collected like I was gonna live here forever,” Maisel says in the film.

Jay Maisel in his former home office at 190 Bowery.

Wilkes first met his future mentor when he was a junior in college in the late 1970s. An aspiring photographer at the time, Wilkes would often see Maisel’s name in books of photography, and decided to pen him a letter. To his surprise, Maisel offered Wilkes a summer internship at The Bank, and soon became his mentor and longtime friend.

Wilkes was in awe of the massive building when he first set foot in 190 Bowery. Every inch of it was filled with the eccentric photographer’s collection, and as the pair grew closer, Wilkes joked that if Maisel ever moved from the place, he would shoot a film to document the massive undertaking. He wasn’t serious, though, and never thought the day would actually come when Maisel would leave his home behind.

But the deteriorating building eventually became too much of a burden to maintain, and Maisel sold it in 2014. Wilkes, who stayed in touch with Maisel, decided to document every step of the move.

“I say it’s a love letter to Jay,” said Wilkes.

Jay Maisel’s move from 190 Bowery required 35 trucks to move.

Throughout the film, Maisel, who doesn’t see himself as a hoarder, but a collector (because hoarders never show you what they collect, Wilkes says), reflects on the objects he owns as he puts them in boxes and prepares for the move with 35-truckloads worth of objects—representing the artist’s nearly half a century life in The Bank.

In a way, the film is a meditation on how the world has changed—not only in New York City, but at large, and what it means to appreciate your surroundings as much as Maisel appreciates them to this day. (He now lives in a Brooklyn townhouse, which he bought after moving from The Bank. He hasn’t given up on collecting).

“Your life will be infinitely richer if you’re aware of the things around you,” Maisel says in the film. And Wilkes agrees. The modern distraction of electronic devices has led to the downfall of “the act of looking,” Wilkes says, making it an “endangered human experience.”

“In a world that’s so upside down—we’re living in a very strange moment in history right now—and I think the act of seeing, the act of looking is the easiest thing we can do,” says Wilkes. “And it can be something that is profoundly touching and emotional and inspirational at the same time.”

Jay Myself premieres Wednesday, July 31 at Film Forum with daily screenings until August 13.

Credit: Curbed, Valeria Ricciulli

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