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7 STORIES OF WATER
IN A 2-STORY BUILDING

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PLANS FOR A WATER MUSEUM Jean-Louis Bourgeois paid $2.2 million for this building on West Street.

By JOSH BARBANEL
Published: October 8, 2006


     As he traveled the world over the last several decades, from Africa to the American Southwest, Jean-Louis Bourgeois, an architectural historian, advocate for environmental rights and 21st-century hipster, had a vision of the often-forgotten role of water in human existence.

nyt_jlpic      Now Mr. Bourgeois, with the assistance of his mother, the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, said he plans to bring that vision to life in an unusual museum dedicated to water in a small, sagging, historic wood-frame building he bought two weeks ago for $2.2 million. It faces West Street and the Hudson River in the Far West Village, just off Christopher Street, and backs up to Weehawken Street.

     Mr. Bourgeois will live in part of the building, until recently the home of a pornographic video store, and before that a series of gay bars, including Choo Choo’s Pier and Sneakers. His plans for the museum include a seven-story waterfall that his mother has agreed to design, he said.

     Mr. Bourgeois outbid several other prospective buyers, according to Jenifer Cook, a broker at the Corcoran Group who worked on the transaction. She said he cut an unusual figure during negotiations, wearing a large blue foam “Cat in the Hat” hat and wheeling a Winnie the Pooh suitcase as a videographer recorded the proceedings. At the closing, he was accompanied by an entourage of aides and a spiritual adviser.

     Mr. Bourgeois described the building on Weehawken Street in a paper he prepared on his new museum: “Like a long-lost wanderer in the desert, I had discovered my oasis, a place in the city where I was born, that would nourish my lifelong passion, water.”

     The museum will never be another Metropolitan. The building has only two floors and 2,800 square feet of space. Asked how a seven-story waterfall would fit into a two-story building, he said it would flow through the building and then underground, though friends have warned him that excavation may be difficult in an area so close to the river.

     The building is one of the last wood-frame buildings on the New York waterfront and is part of the Weehawken Street Historic District, which was designated last May, in response to neighborhood worries about rapid development. It is listed as the last surviving part of a city market popularly known as the Weehawken Market that was built in 1836 on the site of the Newgate State Prison.

     Mr. Bourgeois has two other homes: one near Taos, N.M., and the other in Djenné, in Mali in West Africa, upriver from Timbuktu. Both houses are made out of adobe, and he and his late wife, Carolee Pelos, a photographer, published a book on adobe architecture, “Spectacular Vernacular: The Adobe Tradition” (Aperture Foundation, 1989), now used as a textbook.

     He calls his new building an “earthscraper,” in contrast to Richard Meier’s new condominium towers a few blocks to the north, and said he plans to devote his first exhibition to a critique of Mr. Meier’s work and its effect on small-scale neighborhoods.

     In much of her art, Louise Bourgeois, 94, has delved into her childhood and what she has described as the complicated relationships in her family as she grew up outside of Paris. Mr. Bourgeois said his mother, who lives in Chelsea and hasn’t left her house in many years, provided the money to buy the building “because she much prefers that I spend more time here in New York.”