A Room with a Seaview

by Marie Mundaca

thanks to Dark Passages for inspiring me to write this essay.

"I'm Vinnie, the photographer," he'd start the introductions with his broad Staten Island vowels, "and this here is Marie, only around the Art Commission we call her Le Demoiselle d'Avignon." Anyone else I would have smacked, but Vinnie was big and charming and goofy and could get away with things like that, things that sounded like they might be insulting, but you were never sure.

My junior year in college was also my senior year, as I was anxious to get out and... do what? Go to grad school? Work full-time? Both of which I ended up doing. I was on some sort of schedule, but looking back I wonder what the hurry was. At 20 I was very eager to be an adult, as if graduation would somehow transport me to some other realm where people were less angst-ridden, more self-assured, and went to better parties. So, my junior/senior year I was taking alot of credits to get out by June (as if August graduation would have been so bad? But I had a lucrative position as a proxy clerk lined up for the summer-- $8.00/hr to pull mail-tray-full upon mail-tray-full of stock proxy votes out of envelopes and separate them into discreet piles of "yes" or "no."), but I managed to get Fridays off, which meant I could get the internship I wanted, cataloging WPA art for the New York City Art Commission.

Vinnie was my partner. We were all in pairs, art historians and photographers, and looking around the table at the Art Commission office in City Hall, it looked like I got the best deal. Vinnie was not only funny, he was a working professional. Yes, it was the Staten Island Advance he took photos for, but hey, at least it wasn't the Hunter College Envoy. I knew our photographic documentation would be good, if nothing else.

At that first meeting, we got our assignments. We were to document the condition of WPA murals (The Works Progress Administration was started by FDR as part of the New Deal to employ out-of-work artists during the Great Depression. It resulted in some of this country's most spectacular and controversial murals by artists such as Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Mark Rothko, Willem deKooning and Jackson Pollock. It also encompassed divisions such as the Federal Writers Project, The Folklore Project and The Federal Theater Project. We would not be running into any Pollocks on Staten Island.) We had a different site to inspect each week, most of which were elementary schools, and we were forewarned that in many cases these murals would be in disrepair or, even worse, gone.

Most of these visits were totally uneventful. One school lost its WPA mural, but had a really nice mosaic designed totally by the 3rd graders. It had a tropical fish motif (hey! it was Staten Island! It is the southern most borough...) and was quite charming. Vinnie continued to make fun of me for 1. studying art history and 2. rushing to finish college (he was on the 6 year plan), and he'd snap obnoxious pictures of my backside while I unsuspectedly inspected murals (Vinnie continued this tradition after our internship was over. At the end of the semester I received an award for excellence in the performing and creative arts from one of the CUNY schools I attended, and Vinnie was kind enough to take a photo of the old man, Mr. Burns-esque in his decrepitude, presenting the award, lasciviously kissing my cheek. But all you see of me is voluminous hair and my back. Naturally, this photo ran in the Advance).

We had no idea what was in store for us when we drove up to Seaview, the old-age home.

Is that an offensive term? Seaview is not a retirement community. It's a hospital. At various points it's been a sanitarium, a home for wayward youth, a clinic where the sailors went. At this time, it was a hospital for old people who weren't too horribly ill, but who needed full-time care.

I'd worked at the VA hospital when I was younger, so the sight of old men in pajamas didn't bother me too much, but this is exactly the sort of place that freaked Vinnie out. He wasn't too comfortable with old age. We did a cursory inspection of the areas that were supposed to house the murals (yes, they were there, but they were pretty ugly. Not all the WPA artists were good.) and were ready to high-tail it outta there when we noticed some dilapidated buildings across the street. We asked the administrator what those were.

Seaview used to be a sanitarium, a rest home for the tubercular, back in the early 20th century. It sprawled over a much larger area than it occupied today, many of it's buildings had large terraces for the patients to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Apparently, that was part of the cure back then for TB, fresh air, but they needed to protect the patients from the elements. So, there were many terraced buildings. And, get this, the grounds themselves were heated. Steam pipes ran under the grass to produce a year-round springtime. Cats came from all over the island to bask in the steaming grass. The administrator showed us a photo she had in her office--sick people in PJs reclining in chaise longues, wrapped in blankets, surrounded by literally hundreds of sleeping black kitties. It seemed, to me, serene. To Vinnie, it was surreal. Many of those cats' more feral descendents remain on the grounds today. "Those buildings are closed to the public now," the administrator told us, but we'd already gotten that idea by the large fence, topped with chicken wire, and the big red KEEP OUT signs. We walked to Vinnie's car and pulled out of the hospital parking lot. Then we parked up the street and sneaked into the off-limits area.

The sun suddenly covered over with clouds as we slithered through the thoughtfully placed hole in the fence. The buildings, basically shells of the sanitarium, loomed ominously ahead. But there was no hesitation on our part. We trodded through the damp spring grass towards the skeletal ruins.

We explored the ground floor and were pretty disappointed--mostly dust and broken glass. I climbed up the decaying stairway to the second floor and stepped out on to one of the terraces. I gasped when I turned to look at the wall. It was decorated with the most exquisite example of early 20th century shaped terra cotta mosaics I'd ever seen-- scenes of nurses administering to the sick, many of them in such fine condition that they were barely cracked. I immediately called to Vinnie who immediately began snapping pictures.

The photos came out beautifully, but when we presented them at the next meeting, the Art Commission was strangely unimpressed. It had nothing to do with the WPA and so our boss wasn't interested. Additionally, they weren't too happy that we were trespassing and we got a little verbal slap over that. Ed Koch dropped into the meeting later, wearing an old holey sweater, but we didn't show him the terra cotta nurses.

Copyright (c) 2001 Marie Mundaca