A Farewell to Armory?

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The Park Avenue Armory usually hosts high-end art and antique shows. Last February 8, street-level signs on Park and Lex led to the tony New York Armory Antiques Show on the ground floor. But the billowing red and white balloons at the side entrance led to the “Other” Art Show on the third floor, where the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House has run a homeless women’s shelter for the past five years.

For the fourth consecutive year, neighbors, local politicians and black-clad art types came to an art show created by shelter residents–women, between 45 and 80 years old, with a history of mental illness.

The evening had the feel of a summertime street fair, with musicians sounding Brazilian rhythms while patrons cupped their chins and gazed at work from 19 artists, most of whom were amateurs, though a few had training in art and design.

Far from the haunting visions and inner turmoil usually associated with artists and mental illness, much of the art was playful, like the French street scenes painted on silk scarves by a woman who spends her days at the Met copying old masters.

This year’s sale of pins, bracelets, necklaces, headbands, watercolors, pastels, pendants, tie-dyed scarves and ceramic-chip trivets netted $1,200–twice as much as last year. But despite the joyful ambience and abundant cocktail sausages, uncertainty over the shelter’s future produced palpable anxiety: This show may be the women’s last at the Armory.

The Municipal Art Society has been campaigning for restoration of this historic and once-elegant building for at least six years. The society–also responsible for the renovation of Grand Central Station–recommends building a concert hall and exhibition space in the Armory. According to its Web site, this would “broaden the range of profitable uses for the Armory and enable it to operate over 300 days a year as opposed to the 150 days it is used now.” Seems they overlooked the 100 women who use the Armory a full 365 days a year.

In 1999, New York’s Empire State Development Corporation invited Armory renovation proposals. Over the objections of the local community board, which credits the Lenox Hill shelter with improving the neighborhood, the contract specified that “the space occupied by the shelter will be vacant.”

The contract looks like a lock for the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy. The nonprofit conservancy has close ties to the Municipal Art Society–and submitted the only application. Thin on social service experts, the conservancy’s board of directors hails from real estate, historical preservation, urban renewal and the arts.

Both city and state refused to intervene, according to Lenox Hill’s executive director, Nancy Wackstein. “We’ve been sold down the river,” she says, pointing out that the ESDC made no plan for the women, who need social and mental health services, at a time when homelessness has reached highs not seen since the 1980s. In late February, Lenox Hill took its case directly to the conservancy, asking it to revise its restoration plans to include the shelter.

“This place has given us a second chance,” said Leigh Seymour, a former resident, as she collected paintings that didn’t sell. The government, she added, cares only “about endangered buildings. What about the endangered lives of women?”

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