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Lillian Vernon Writers House profiled in The New York Times

We are honored to share this New York Times' profile of our program and the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House:

A Literary House Keeps the Village Spirit Alive  - The Appraisal

By MATT A.V. CHABAN MARCH 28, 2016

Light radiated from the large, leaded front window of 58 West 10th Street on Thursday night, as it does most Thursdays and Fridays. Books and journals spanned the windowsill, and a soft yellow garland of stained glass framed the back of a man’s head. Up the stoop and inside, under another rope of vines sculpted into the ceiling, the voice of Major Jackson filled the parlor as he read poems from his collection “Roll Deep.”

The corner store, with its faded graffiti lines,
finally whitewashed, nearly expunged,
doubtless like its author save for his palimpsest ...

The mostly bespectacled audience was rapt, a few clutching glasses of white wine. Marilyn Hacker, a winner of the National Book Award and a former editor of The Kenyon Review, had just finished tracing the lives of “dyke vegetarians” from Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Syrian refugee children.

“Poetry is poetry,” Ms. Hacker said after the reading, “but this is certainly a very lively place for it.”

The 1836 house, officially known as the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, is one of the few places left in Greenwich Village to hear authors such as Jonathan Lethem, Sharon Olds, Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith — even the Barnes & Noble around the corner on the Avenue of the Americas has closed. And yet the building and the activities there are as much a part of the 21st-century Village as the brasseries and boutiques that fill its crooked streets. This is no down-and-out collective or impromptu salon. For the past decade, it has been the home of New York University’s Creative Writing Program.

The university moved the program there in 2007 in an effort to foster the kind of bohemian bonhomie that has been vanishing in waves since the eras when Eugene O’Neill took Broadway, Bob Dylan plugged in and Carrie Bradshaw strolled by in stilettos (not to mention Sarah Jessica Parker herself). Over the decades, the landscape has shaped the scene as much as it has been shaped by it.

“Cheap apartments, cheap cafes, cheap bars — artists could afford to live there,” John Strausbaugh, author of “The Village: 400 Years of Beats, Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village,” said in an interview. “It wasn’t just individual spots. The entire neighborhood was a cultural engine.”

This spot, at least, is still churning out an impressive number of works. Ms. Smith, Martin Amis, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Carson and Ms. Olds are among the faculty members, and recent graduates include such literary darlings as Garth Risk Hallberg, Robin Coste Lewis and Julia Pierpont.

Few of the faculty members or students live in the neighborhood, and those who do tend to be longtime residents or in university housing. Nor would their work there be possible without an institution, endowment or scholarship, like the funds provided by Lillian Vernon, the catalog magnate for whom the building is named. A regular at the readings before she died in 2015, she helped bring about the move out of a cluster of academic buildings.

“I had one class in a pizza parlor, and we’d meet with professors where we could find an empty room,” said Darin Strauss, a 1997 graduate of the program who now teaches there. His luminous top-floor office is about the closest thing left in the neighborhood to a garret.

The house was among the reasons Ms. Smith, who is British, agreed to cross the Atlantic and join the program. She now works from an office that was used by the novelist E. L. Doctorow until his death last year. “There’s a kind of American institutional space that looks like an airport waiting room,” she said on Friday, taking a moment away from her next novel (Ms. Smith is trying to finish 4,000 words a day).

“You go upstairs, and Sharon Olds is having a cup of tea, or Jonathan Safran Foer is eating a sandwich,” Ms. Smith said. “At this point in my life, I figured it would just be me, writing in the library.”

The paint on the walls is peeling in spots, and the floorboards are creaky. “It’s kind of a warren,” Meghan O’Rourke said after teaching a poetry class on Wallace Stevens on Thursday. “You never know who you might find hiding around a corner or bump into on the stairs.”

That the house is part of N.Y.U., an institution many in the neighborhood fault for diminishing the local culture as it has expanded in the Village, is not lost on those who use it.

“It’s better than another billionaire with fancy furniture and stereo equipment,” said Deborah Landau, a poet and director of the program. “Manhattan is still the center of the literary world, and we want to be at the center of that.”

The neighborhood used to be full of artistic enclaves, such as the Liberal Club, the Mad Hatter Tearoom and the Writers Room. A few still persist, like the Salmagundi Club, though there are fewer and fewer. Farther east on 10th Street, past the former residences of Mark Twain, Emma Lazarus and Edward Albee, the Pen and Brush opened its house for female artists and writers in 1923. Nearly 90 years later, it was sold, amid controversy, for $11 million, and after a gut renovation, was sold again for $32 million in November.

What is now the Writers House has a similar pedigree. Starting in 1877, its rear building was the meeting place of the Tile Club, whose members included Winslow Homer, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Edwin Austin Abbey and Stanford White. White helped the owner, the stained-glass artist Maitland Armstrong, remodel in the 1880s, creating many of the windows, bas-reliefs and other details that still decorate the home. N.Y.U. acquired the building in the late 1980s, with support from the Onassis family. After surviving a fire during renovations, it served as various policy institutes until the writers moved in.

Although there are no living quarters at the Writers House, its denizens are at home there. “Is it a virtue of a place that you’re comfortable falling asleep there? To me, it is,” Mr. Foer said, noting that he often naps on the floor. (He finished his latest novel there.)

Mr. Foer is also fond of impromptu meditation sessions in Ms. Landau’s office, and many faculty members bring their children to class or readings when the babysitter falls through. Wine and beer are also common. Students and graduates can often be found mingling in the parlor, library or mahogany-lined kitchen turned classroom.

Ms. Landau said students took inspiration from all the plaques of literary luminaries dotting the neighborhood, even if these days they were more likely to bump into artists who are far from starving.

“If I don’t see Meg Ryan in Washington Square Park,” Ms. Smith said, “I know I’m running late for class.”