When Lewandowski-Lois began painting in oil, she set up a space in a spare bedroom in our apartment, her first studio. Soon the smell of oil paints lofted through the whole house, sometimes overpowering the delicious aromas coming from her kitchen.
When Harry Joe entered pre-school in 1961, she rented a small room on the top floor of 43 Fifth Avenue, a lovely building across the street from his pre-school. It was about the size of a closet, with no windows – but the whole ceiling was a skylight! Every weekday morning she took Harry Joe to school and then painted in her new studio for three hours, then crossed the street to pick him up. Then she did the same thing when Luke enrolled in the same school. Years later, when both children were in primary school, she finally was ready to move to a studio where she could paint larger canvases.
She found a wonderful space in The Cable Building, 611 Broadway, which was originally built to be a repair facility for the cable cars that populated the streets of New York at the turn of the 20th century. With large, beautiful, arched windows, it was the perfect place to paint machines!
With rents rising in the city and her Cable Building lease ending, she joined the throngs of artists in the never-ending chase for affordable space and rent deals. First, just across Broadway, then followed by a space on 19th street and 6th Avenue–where tragedy struck.
After surviving the devastation of 9/11 with the city finally beginning to heal, she heard on the news that the building housing her studio was the site of a terrible explosion! A sign manufacturing company located on the first floor of that building had been storing various chemicals in the basement and on April 25, 2002, those chemicals exploded in a giant ball of fire, causing extensive damage to the building, including the main staircase and rendering the building unsafe both structurally and environmentally.
The moment we heard about it, Rosemary, Luke, his wife Diane, and I all ran up to assess the damage. The fire was under control but the damage was severe. Looking up from the street, we could see the windows of her space blown out and water dripping down from the massive blasts of the fire hoses.
With her life’s work all stored in that studio, and exposed to the elements, Rosemary was shattered.
Access to the building to remove her paintings was impossible, but we knew we had to do something. Rosemary’s daughter-in-law, Diane, came to the rescue! She spent the next ten hours arguing with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Fire Station command trucks pleading with the firemen to give us access to our family treasures located in that studio. The DEP blocked access due to the dangerous chemicals that needed to be assessed and cleaned and the fire department stated that the blast had rendered the building structurally unsafe to enter.
Eventually, Diane was somehow able to convince four firemen to grant us access. We were told to gather backpacks of duct tape and plastic tarps and come back in one hour. Luke packed up as much as they could carry and he and Diane were led by four firemen through an adjacent building, over the roof tops, and down a partially blown out stairway to the studio. They were allowed 45 minutes to do as much as they could. Luke photographed the condition of each painting and filmed the space. They wrapped each painting, sealing them as best they could in plastic and taping them to the back wall away from the open windows, moving as much furniture as possible against the paintings to protect and secure them from the elements. When time was up, they had to leave everything behind since they were not allowed to remove anything until the DEP gave the okay.
Luke returned home to show Rosemary the film of the space and the paintings. Miraculously there was minor damage and they just hoped that they would remain safe until we could get them home! It took weeks before the DEP gave access and even then it was limited to removing only the paintings. With the help of our son and daughter-in-law, our grandsons and a wonderful doorman from our home building, Shef Perovic, a bucket brigade was formed and the paintings were brought down, one by one, to a truck to bring home.
The children’s antique captains bed she kept in the studio, many of her drawings, research, antique flat files, tables, chairs, paints, brushes, mementos, and a precious collection of old jazz albums that she listened to while she painted, were lost. But we were grateful for the safe return of her paintings!
It is due to the kind, brave, understanding men of the New York City Fire Department that we have them today. When everything was all settled, as a thank you, Lewandowski-Lois baked the firemen a few of her delicious apple pies and delivered them to her heroes with hugs and thanks!