Standing on LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village, just a few doors down from the Center for Architecture and around the corner from the Bitter End, there is an unassuming townhouse which is filled inside with thousands of works of art. 526 Laguardia Place was the home of New York City sculptor Chaim Gross and his wife Renee. The Grosses converted the 1830s loft and storefront into a studio space and home in 1963. The townhouse stands today largely as it did when Chaim Gross died in 1991.
Inside you will see an extensive collection of art he amassed from around the world and art he made throughout his life. Untapped Cities Insiders recently got to visit the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation for a tour of the home and studio led by the extremely knowledgeable and affable Sasha Davis, the foundation’s Executive Director. We got to see and learn about all of the wonderful treasures hidden inside (and even touch some). From the tools Gross used, to rare works of art he collected from his friends and family, check out what we found!
1. A Never Built Holocaust Memorial
The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, or the American Memorial to Six Million Jews of Europe, in Riverside Park is just a plaque on the ground surrounded by a fence, but proposals for the memorial were much more elaborate. Located at the south end of the Promenade at 83rd Street, the memorial is dedicated to the six million Jewish men, women and children who were killed under Nazi rule during World War II, and more specifically to those who resisted being sent to death camps during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It was dedicated in 1947.
Chaim Gross was one of at least six different artists who came up with a proposal for the monument. You can see the plaster maquette he made inside his studio. It stands on one of his work tables on the left side of the room. The monument Gross designed would have had a semi-circular wall backing a large menorah-like tower topped with a triumphant figure. Ultimately, none of the grand designs were chosen due to a lack of funds and instead a simple plaque was installed.
2. His Handmade Mallet
Chaim Gross built a customized studio space in his home in 1963. Its signature features include a giant, west facing skylight and an end grain floor which was installed because it is absorbent and can bear the weight of large sculptures. The studio space takes up the first floor of the home and the living spaces are on the top two floors. Gross’ studio as you see it today is largely as it was when he worked in it. There are project in progress, supplies, finished work, drawers stuffed with all kinds of miscellaneous objects, and tools everywhere, all arranged based on historical photographs to be as close to how Gross left them. One of the most special artifacts is Gross’ mallet, which he carved himself out of wood in the 1920s. He even carved the year into the bottom.
Gross was a pioneer of the direct carving method. This means he didn’t work from a model of say, clay or wax first, but went right to work chipping away at a block of wood. Gross preferred to work with hard woods like lignum vitae, his favorite. He would carve out figures using a chisel and his mallet, then go in with smaller tools for finer details and to smooth it out. On our Insider tour, we passed around the mallet and were shocked by how heavy it was. You can watch a video of Chaim Gross at work carving a likeness of his wife on the foundation’s website.
3. African Art Collection
The living spaces on the third floor of the Gross townhouse probably have more art than the studio and galleries! Chaim Gross was an avid art collector and had a special interest in African art. It’s easy to see how the totemic stacking style influenced his own work. He began collecting pieces from Africa in the 1930s.
Gross was especially fond of statues from the Dogon people of West Africa which are displayed in the case pictured above which stands between the living and dining rooms, across from a built-in display of even more art on the opposite wall. His collection also boast a large assortment of tiny Ashanti gold weights and many different types of African masks. Part of his collection was exhibited at the Worcester Art Museum in The Sculptor’s Eye: The African Art Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Chaim Gross in 1976.
4. Paintings by Famous Friends and Family
All of the artwork Chaim Gross displayed in his home was either gifted or bought directly from the artist. His vast collection of paintings cover nearly every inch of wall space and are hung among an eclectic mix of furniture pieces. There are even paintings hanging in the stairwell, all the way through the house.
Featured among the mass of paintings are works by his daughter Mimi Gross and her husband Red Grooms, Willem De Kooning, Milton Avery, Emmanuel Mané-Katz, José Clemente Orozco, Moses Soyer, and many, many others. There is even a rare piece gifted to Chaim Gross by his student Louise Nevelson. Nevelson destroyed much of her own earlier works, so the piece inside the Gross home is a hidden gem. In order to properly light his collection, Chaim Gross designed a drop ceiling border that would hide iridescent lights that shine down onto the paintings.
5. Sculptures You Can Touch
While most museums strongly warn you not to touch the artwork, at the Chaim Gross Foundation you are encouraged to touch (at least some of the items!). There is an entire gallery filled with art they want you to touch. The sculptures were crafted by Chaim Gross and made of a variety of materials from stone to wood to metal. The foundation uses this gallery as a learning space and often hosts Tactile Transmissions, a program geared toward visitors who are blind or partially sighted.
There is also a sculpture inside the studio you can touch. The sculpture is unfinished and serves as an example of a work in progress. It allows visitors see and feel the groves in the wood made from the chisel before it is smoothed.
You can join a public tour of the Renee and Chaim Gross townhouse starting September 4th. Tours run on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 3:00pm and 6:00pm and Fridays and Saturdays at 1:00pm and 3:00pm through the end of June. Tickets can be purchased in advance online. Find out where Untapped Cities Insiders are going next by checking our our member events page. Not an Insider yet? Sign up here to gain free access to behind-the-scenes tours and special events all year long! Check out more photos of our visit to the Chaim Gross townhouse below:
Next, check out The Top 15 Secrets of Greenwich Village in NYC