- Associated Press - Monday, August 2, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - All of her neighbors are gone, forced out. Now Elizabeth Sargent, the last holdout tenant of Carnegie Hall’s towers, is preparing to leave the affordable studios that for more than a century housed some of America’s most brilliant creative artists.

Red scaffolding surrounds Carnegie Hall as the city-owned towers are being gutted this summer in a $200 million renovation that includes adding a youth music program. Celebrities like Robert De Niro and Susan Sarandon had fought to save the homes, petitioning the city not to “displace these treasured artists and master teachers.”

Musicians, painters, dancers and actors thrived in the two towers built by 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie just after the hall went up in 1891. The towers _ one 12 stories high, the other 16 _ housed more than 100 studios, some with special skylights installed to give painters the northern light they prize.

Over the years, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Robert Redford took acting lessons here and Lucille Ball had voice coaching. James Dean studied scripts and Leonard Bernstein, music.

Women once lined up on the street to visit an alluring resident _ the young Marlon Brando. His studio space on the eighth floor was demolished in early July.

Sargent, a one-time dancer noted for her boldly sexual poetry, is now in her 80s and in remission from cancer. For 40 years, she’s lived on the ninth floor of the red brick southern tower above the famed stage of the 119-year-old landmark.

She has until Aug. 31 to clear out.

Sargent and other residents have waged a years-long legal battle against New York City, the Carnegie Hall Corp., and a powerful, modern-day philanthropist, Sanford “Sandy” Weill, the former chairman and CEO of Citigroup. The refurbished towers will soon house an education program named for Weill, Carnegie Hall’s chairman and benefactor, plus other administrative spaces, according to Carnegie artistic director Clive Gillinson.

When Carnegie Hall announced the project in May 2007, 18 studios were occupied and dozens of other artists rented teaching space.

Editta Sherman, a 98-year-old photographer, had a studio that’s still filled with portraits of Hollywood and Broadway stars. She’s not been allowed to sleep there since early July and must also remove her belongings by Aug. 31.

Known by her neighbors as the “Duchess of Carnegie Hall,” Sherman vowed two years ago that she’d never leave. “They’ll have to drag me out,” she said.

“My whole life has been here!” said Sherman. A resident since 1949, she raised five children in a studio with 25-foot ceilings and a view of Central Park. Her rent was frozen at $650 a month.

Finally, the two women signed agreements with Carnegie in exchange for new midtown Manhattan apartments where rents will be subsidized by Carnegie for the rest of their lives.

“I’d rather live in these rundown rooms than any new apartment in a glass tower,” said the reclusive Sargent, speaking to a reporter by telephone from behind her studio door. She reached a hand into the hallway to retrieve a bag of groceries left on the knob by a former neighbor.

An Associated Press team toured the construction site and obtained exclusive photos and video of the tower renovation, zeroing in on controversial spots _ historic parts of the building being torn down.

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