Photographer Jay Maisel Opens up About Living in the 72-Room Bank on the Bowery
Jay Maisel, the photographer who owned the Germania Bank Building for fifty years, recently opened up about his time on the Bowery. This on the heels of unveiling a website of his photo archive. City Realty’s 6sqft blog sat down to interview the 87-year-old man, who discussed his history with the 72-room Bowery gem. Everything from the broker who found it to the original mortgage payments, and finally, the blockbuster $55 million sale to Aby Rosen. Below are some choice excerpts from the exchange:
What was it like living in 190 Bowery? What caught your eye with that building?
I lived at 190 Bowery for almost 50 years. I was aware of what a gift it was. I didn’t take it for granted at any point. It was an amazing experience and I’m sure no one else has ever had an experience like this. Wealthy people that have that kind of space don’t have usually don’t have the desire or ability to build it themselves. That’s what I did there. We never had a contractor. We had electrical and plumbing help because otherwise, it would’ve been illegal. I only had two tenants in the first two years, Adolph Gottlieb and Roy Lichtenstein. And then I never rented it out again.
When you bought the building the neighborhood was nothing like it is now, right?
Are you joking? That’s the understatement of all time. When I moved in, every friend, every relationship, every family member unanimously said, “are you out of your fucking mind? Are you crazy?” Plus, whenever I would have someone visit the place, I’d show them it from the roof down because the view was amazing and I was very proud of it, of course. Inevitably they’d get to a physical point which was four to eight steps below the main room and they would look back through the banister and say, “You are crazy.”
People would say to me, “What if nobody wants to come down here? Who would want to come down to this neighborhood?” That was the unanimous opinion. I understand. I was overwhelmed by it the first time I saw it too.
The agent who got it for me was a guy named Jack Klein. He said, “Oh you can handle this.” To which I said, “I can afford to buy it but I don’t think I can afford to keep it up.” I remember my payments to the bank to the penny. They were $427.78 a month. It was a struggle to do it but I never took it for granted.
What was the motivation to move and sell?
It’s complex. One thing is that I figured it was time. Everyone had been telling me to sell the place since I bought it. And one guy said to me, “You realize you could’ve sold that place for $3 million but now that we had a recession, you’re not going to be able to.”
I always had the building in the back of my mind as my insurance plan, my retirement plan. It was everything.
In 1995, I was around 65 years old and I retired. I didn’t stop working, I retired which meant I would no longer do any commercial work because the terms of employment had gotten very shitty. I’d put away money over the years. So for those 20 years from 1995-2015, I didn’t really make a lot of money. In fact, I spent most of my money. In my head, I knew I was going to sell this place because I can’t do that forever. At some point, I decided I would do it. Also, I was partially motivated by the inundation of brokers’ letters. I have a whole file called “I want to buy the bank.”
Did you have any idea how much it was worth?
I thought it was worth what I could get for it. I was getting ridiculously low bids for it. [One developer] came to me through an acquaintance of an acquaintance. They offered me something like $20 million for it. I just looked at them and said, “You’re jerking me off, right? You can’t be fucking serious? Forget it, we’re out.”
I was thinking of something in the 30s or 40s and then I spoke to one person in the business and asked what do you think it’s worth. She said, $50 million at least. If I hadn’t had a need for money I might not have sold it.
I knew I was never going to find anything better. I knew my next home was going to be a compromise. I had 35,000 square feet and this place I have now is 5,000 square feet.
I miss the place a lot. I went back there the other day. [Aby Rosen] did nice work, he respected it. He ruined the two best rooms, the bank president’s room and the ante room to the president’s room, but he may have had to because he had to make a second means of egress. Both rooms were paneled in mahogany, both had terrific plasterwork on the ceiling. They were just beautiful. One of them had a stained glass window, the other had two large windows which I closed off because there was a building right next to it.