“Lost Bohemia,” a new documentary by Josef Astor, is a sad and spirited elegy for the Carnegie Hall Studios, which for more than a century provided working, living and teaching space for all kinds of artists on the floors above the famous concert hall. Mr. Astor, a photographer who moved into the building in 1985, pays tribute to his neighbors and friends who made up the last generation of studio residents. He also acknowledges the famous ghosts who haunt the place, ranging from Isadora Duncan and Enrico Caruso to Marilyn Monroe and Martha Graham.
Astor, who’d been in his skylighted space since 1985, was once surrounded by hundreds of creative neighbors—painters and dancers, photographers and composers—who lived and worked in 170 studios built directly above the grand midtown concert hall. The studios are in the process of being gutted and remodeled by the Carnegie Hall Corporation (the building is owned by the city, but the corporation is its primary tenant). According to a CHC spokeswoman, the spaces will be converted to “educational facilities” for young musicians.
When Andrew Carnegie built the Towers over the Hall—the project was completed in 1896—he intended for the studios to be occupied by working artists. It wasn’t cultural altruism—the rents were a source of revenue. But architect Henry J. Hardenbergh (who also did the Dakota and the Plaza Hotel) designed the apartments as studios, with high ceilings and north-facing skylights. The roster of names who lived and worked there is stellar: Isadora Duncan, Agnes de Mille, Garson Kanin, Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein.
Editta Sherman is known as the Duchess of Carnegie Hall. The sprightly 98-year-old had lived in her twelfth-floor studio since 1949. She raised five children while working as a successful photographer of the cultural elite. Dramatic black-and-white examples from her collection of 2,500 portraits were displayed against the mirrored walls and bold checkered floor: Henry Fonda, Mary Martin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. A cast-iron circular staircase led to a loft filled with studio props. Photographer and past fellow resident Bill Cunningham enlisted Sherman as his model and muse for his 1978 book Facades, which fuses fashion and architecture photography.
The corporation promised to find comparable apartments for the seven rent-controlled tenants still living in the Towers, and to pay the difference in rent for the remainder of each tenant’s life, but the 26 non-rent-controlled commercial and residential tenants—including Astor—had no such guarantee.
The last residents moved out last year, and while “Lost Bohemia” mourns their dispossession, it also allows us to spend time in their eccentric, artistic company and to appreciate their contribution to the life of the city. Among them are Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer who is the subject of a marvelous recent documentary, and Don Shirley, a pianist who recalls playing with Duke Ellington “downstairs” — that is, in Carnegie Hall itself.
An anonymous, unseen poet who lived above Mr. Astor and left him eloquent phone messages observed that studios and the hall below, though commissioned by a plutocrat, “were built not on power, but on love.” The power of this documentary resides in that proud and fragile sentiment. Photo below is Astor’s studio after demolition.