The New School’s Last Dance with Old New York
Of all the New School’s real estate flubs and delays, letting go of Marlton House was their worst decision.
Space at this university has always frustrated me. The limited resources that The New School had to offer me were cut back even further for the benefit of future students. I liked the large study room at 65 Fifth Ave. and I’d take the dingy basement library over the mess that is now the Computer Lab With Bookshelves. The new study space on Fifth Avenue is useful, though sterile, but I stopped studying at school long ago.
Getting attached to a building on this campus by this point is futile. But walking by Marlton House at dusk and looking up at the one or two lit up windows in that old single-room occupancy hotel on Eighth Street still gets me every time.
When I became an RA, Marlton House was my home base. I moved in during a summer downpour. The building didn’t look like any dorm I’d ever seen. It had an ancient porthole-windowed elevator; rooms with painted-over mantelpieces and crown moldings; and permanent tenants, rent-stabilized hangers-on of an era long passed, with whom you’d occasionally ride the elevator.
Yes, the building had a rodent problem. I stayed up countless nights fighting off that brave, fat mouse who kept trying to break into my supply of ramen noodles. Because of this and Marlton’s strange aesthetic and tenants, the building was literally called “the red-headed stepchild” during housing meetings. Marlton always seemed dysfunctional to outsiders and as a result, I think The New School suppressed the dorm’s impressive history.
As any die-hard Marlton resident would tell you, the Marlton Hotel temporarily housed Village figures like Lenny Bruce, Mickey Rourke, Lilian Gish, Valerie Solanas (who was staying at the hotel when she shot Andy Warhol) and of course Jack Kerouac, who penned “Tristessa” and “The Subtarraneans” during his stay. To be honest, I didn’t know much about those names when I moved in. But, like New York, Marlton’s past pulls you in.
What freshman on his way to New York wouldn’t want to stay in a building so ingrained in Village lore? At Ursinus college, there’s a writing scholarship that grants an incoming student a full ride for the first year and room and board in J.D. Salinger’s tiny dorm room. They’re fully aware of the draw that celebrity provides.
Places like Marlton lend themselves to that manic free association hungry young artists thrive on (like a more satisfying game of “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon”). When I finally got beyond the history, I got to know some of the permanent tenants. Sammy, a nice guy with an edge of insanity, helped me early on with my mouse problems, gave me traps and steel wool, and even fixed my toilet for me. The guard once told me that just after I’d gone to bed Mickey Rourke walked in to visit his friend Carl, an older gentleman who’d been the doorman during the hotel’s heyday. Later in the year, during an interview with Carl for a paper, he asked me to turn off my tape recorder and proposed I write a book about his life story. I was, at the time, a sophomore and completely intimidated. He then launched into a tale of a summer-long boyhood ménage-a-trois he’d had on a farm with a beautiful couple.
I wouldn’t trade these strange, charming experiences for anything at any other university dorm. They were the perfect conditions for what The New School’s PR seems to, at times, consider to be as important as academics – living in New York City.
From what I learned during housing meetings, Marlton didn’t have the proper sprinkler system that is required for dormitories, and so the building was dropped. Just like that. Aside from the permanent tenants and the guards, Marlton’s been empty ever since.
My question is simply, why? Was The New School so frugal that they wouldn’t pay the money to install a simple sprinkler system in such an epic landmark? Old buildings used as dorms were a New School signature. It set us apart from the bland residences halls of Anytown, U.S.A. Marlton had been leased out to the university since 1987 and had entered New School lore. Most students, whether they’d lived there or not, always had a story or two about the building ranging from midnight rooftop parties to elevator rides with prostitutes.
I try to visit Marlton every once in a while. I catch up with guards – some of the nicest people I’ve met – and see what’s happening with the place. I’ve heard rumors of it being turned back into a hotel, but nothing’s happened yet.
Every time I’m there though, no matter which guard is at the desk, they always say the same thing – “We miss the kids.”
And we miss Marlton.