When I lived on Williamsburg's Southside I fell into a strange, compulsive ritual anytime I ventured south on Bedford Avenue toward Broadway. On that corner stands an ornate marble building, with scaffolding and a locked wrought iron fence. A rusty sliding door on the Bedford side is equipped with a doorbell. All of the windows are blocked with wood shutters. Standing on my tiptoes one day, I peered into a room lavishly accented with mahogany. My vantage point was an inch-long slit, but I saw marble moldings, wooden panels and hanging gasoliers, a type of early 20th century bulbed chandelier.

The doorbell, when I rang it, made a sound I've often heard in old freight elevators: the high-pitched ring of metal hitting metal. No answer. I would continue on with whatever errand I was running, but I could never pass by without ringing the bell, hoping to get inside.

I knew from Google that something called the Williamsburg Arts and Historical Society was housed there, and there was an art gallery on the second floor. But the pictures didn't look like the grand space I had seen.

The building used to be the Kings County Savings Bank, not to be confused with the Williamsburgh Saving Bank two blocks away. It was chartered in 1860 and built by a Brooklyn architecture firm, King and Wilcox, in 1868. It's designed in the "French Second Empire"; style. Napoleon III's city planner Baron Haussmann was this style's pioneer; he transformed Paris with the stylish wide boulevards and Mansard roofs that the Kings County Saving Bank copied.

Harmon Goldstone, chair of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1968, said that the bank "represents a period of conspicuous display in which it was not considered vulgar, at least by the people in power, to boast openly of one's wealth...From its scale and general character there is nothing on the outside that would distinguish the Kings County Savings Bank from a millionaire's mansion."

After months of ringing the bell, it turned to a kind of OCD tick—run up the stairs, push the bell, continue on my way. About a month ago, after I rang the bell, I heard a noise. The mail slot had been pushed open and a set of fingers stuck out. I bent down and peered through the slot and a pair of eyes stared back at me. I heard the grinding of a lock and the door opened. A very petite Japanese woman looked up at me. "Oh, I thought you were FedEx," she said.

It was Yuko Nii, the woman who purchased the bank in 1996. I was at a total loss. To say, "I know who you are and have been trying to get in here for 6 months," seemed too intense for an introduction.

As I told her my name, she motioned me inside and up a set of concrete stairs to the art gallery. There was another man there, an artist with a piece in the show. Nii was immediately warm and gracious to me, and took in my blathering about the building with interest.

"Could I see the first floor?" I asked.
"Oh it's a mess," she said. "But I will show it to you."

*

Nii moved to the United States in 1963 from Tokyo, transferring from a Tokyo university to come to Berkeley, California where her father's friend was a professor. She had $200 in her pocket when she arrived. She immediately wanted to experience the American counterculture she had heard about, and visited San Francisco. She then transferred to Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and majored in fine arts. To stay in the US, she had to continue her education, and in 1966, she moved to Clinton Hill, Brooklyn to attend Pratt.

Nii needed a way to earn money, but didn't want a job that would take time away from her painting. She started to buy run-down buildings; the first was in Ironwood, Michigan. She liked to buy in northern states, where she would escape the heat of Brooklyn summers. After she bought a building, she would renovate it with her own hands.

She said that when she was seven years old, her parents renovated their house in Tokyo. She already had an interest in art and in sculpture—carpentry seemed to her like a form of both.

"They treated me like a little assistant," she said. "Instead of going to school, I always waited for the workers to come. And then they taught me how to use particular Japanese saws and then hammers and so on. Ever since, I'm fascinated by the things which are behind the wall."

Each time she renovated a building, she would create a studio on the first floor for herself. With her artist's sensibilities, the renovations transformed the places she bought. She would rent out the houses, and live off the rent.

"I even changed the windows, can you imagine?" she said. "Amazing what you can do when you are young. Especially artists. We are obsessed."

Being a distant landlord started to create problems. She would be away from her buildings for a majority of the year; radiators would burst and other repairs would demand attention. So she sold her them in exchange for something closer to the city. Each time she sold a building, the value had increased from her upgrades. Slowly, she made profits from each sale, money which she would later use to buy property in a neighborhood not many were buying: Williamsburg.

*


In 1986, she bought a three story building on Grand St. and Havemeyer that was listed in the New York Times. She said that some artists had started to move to Williamsburg from SoHo, but they all stayed near the Bedford L stop at North 7th Street. Her neighborhood on Grand Street was predominantly Puerto Rican. She began to renovate the building, a puzzling sight to her neighbors.

"All the neighbors became curious about the Oriental girl that moved in who was very busy coming in and out," she said."'Chino,' they used to say—they thought there was no difference between Chinese and Japanese—'What are you doing? You'll get killed. Get out of here.'

And I said, 'What are you talking about, get out of here? I just bought the building. And I'm renovating.'

They said, 'We know you're renovating because we see all the junk on the street. But you will see, you'll get killed.'"

There's nothing like hearing "you'll get killed" to inspire you to make the neighborhood a better place, she said, for her and her tenants. The streets were filled with glass and broken bottles, so she started a recycling center on Metropolitan Avenue and North 3rd Street. She participated in planting more trees on major streets like Bedford Avenue and later, on Havemeyer.

She couldn't fix the neighborhood overnight. She hired some local teenagers to help her carry heavy boards and machinery. One day she went into the bathroom, which she usually avoided because it wasn't completed, and saw needles piling up on the sink. She believed they were using her building to shoot up, and probably buying drugs with the money she was paying them, so she fired them.

When her renovations wrapped, her tenants moved in; they were mostly European artists who knew the area was dangerous, but needed to live cheaply. Her two bedroom apartments rented for $500 at first. She said the only place to eat in Williamsburg was Kasia's on North 9th Street (which is still there today). But slowly through the late 1980s, cafes and bars started to open to serve the growing artist population.

In 1995, Nii dreamed of opening an arts center, for all the emerging talent she saw around her. She saw a "Building for Sale" sign pasted in the window of the Kings County Savings Bank and called the number. A realtor named Deborah was renting the place to two men for $5000 a month, but they were behind on rent, and was considering eviction. Nii went to see it.

*

I was finally about to enter the bank. Nii unlocked a plain white door at the end of a dilapidated hallway, and I followed her through the doorway and back in time. We walked though what looked like a manager's office, with oil paintings and wingback sofas, and into the cavernous banking hall.

My little peek through the shutters had sparked my imagination, and the reality was even better. The bank is in excellent condition. Marble plaques are engraved with the original bank officers names, a steel vault is hidden behind the polished wooden wall panels and the ceilings are 22 feet high, held up with cast-iron columns. Nii had warned me it was "a mess," but to my delight, I found it filled with antiques and art work. Knick knacks from Nii's collection, and items she wants to put in the space when she turns it into a cafe and reading room, to open sometime next year.

What Nii saw in 1995 was almost the same experience that I was having. She said that on her first viewing, she was "very impressed." On the second floor, which she uses as the gallery, she found a group of artists painting a large canvas. On the third, the two renters, Peter and David with their own collection of antiques.

Nii knew little about Peter McGough and David McDermott, except that they were living a life rooted the past. They wore three piece suits, pointed Oxford shoes and Panama hats. They walked with ornate canes. From a farm they owned upstate they brought white horses into the bank; Nii said when she took over the building she had to clean up a whole basement of horse manure. The ran their own antique printing press that printed old fashioned newspapers.

When they were evicted in 1996 and Nii bought the building, they moved to Ireland. For her first several years there, an Irish girl would show up every year and ask, “If you’re ready, Peter and David are ready to buy it back.” Nii would politely say,” No thank you, I’m not selling.”

Peter and David’s extravagance matches the decadent history of the bank. Before the Williamsburg Bridge was built, Williamsburg was a kind of weekend get away for the richest men in the country. It was a desirable place for industry, with the East River so close. Pratt, Havemeyer, Pfizer and many other wealthy men made their fortunes here, and the Kings County Savings Bank was designed to be a “wealthy people’s bank,” Nii said. At one point in the late 1800s, 1/10 of the entire country’s wealth was coming out of Williamsburg.

That explains the beauty of the first level. The second floor was called the Ceremonial Room, where weddings were held and awards were given. The third floor was used as a ballroom, and its dances had attendees with names like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Cooper and Morgan. Mansions were built in the surrounding blocks to sleep at after a night of dancing.

In 1902, the bridge was built and immigrants from the Lower East Side started to flee the crowded tenements and settle in Williamsburg. The population boomed, and the rich lost their quiet get-away. The second and third floor of the bank was turned into a boys and girl business school. They gutted the mahogany staircase and replaced it one of cement and steel that was up to fire proof code.

It’s this time period that interests Nii the most, not the era of decadence. She read Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and was very affected by stories of children fighting to read on fire escapes, because their apartments were filled with aged relatives. Or collecting tin on the street to buy a piece of candy. From the gilded hall, she put out a notice to residents of Williamsburg from the turn of the century: Come back and share your stories.

It was the center’s first show. In total, 55 elderly people turned up, with walkers and wheel chairs. Mostly first generation, who had lived in Williamsburg.

“They told us stories, interesting things, lasting four hours,” Nii said. “They were getting so tired, and I was giving them cookies and so on. They were saying to each other, ‘Oh I remember you, did you live on South 4th?’ Those who used to paint brought their paintings, we put them on the wall. And those who were poets, read poems. And that was the first show.”

Nii’s vision for the bank continues to be, what she calls, a “bridge.” Some kind of connection between two groups. Now, she is focused on connecting local and international artists, but not always those from different places.

“Like Japanese artists who are here and Japanese artists still in Japan,” she said. “They meet here. So that you can compare how American culture influenced them."

She also wants to connect art’s varied genres, like fine art and performance art. The third floor ballroom, which is filled with boxes right now, will be a theater venue for dance and plays. As a whole, each floor of the Williamsburg Arts and Historical society (WAH) would be dedicated to its own medium, but all under the same roof. I can’t imagine a better place to watch a play, or to get a coffee and read in the spacious banking hall.

*

It’s not easy to own a historic building. It was landmarked in 1966, and she has since transferred the building to her non-profit, the Yuko Nii Foundation. But because she privately bought it, they’re not eligible for as much public funding as other non-profits that were publicly purchased. During hurricane Irene, the clock tower and a major support beam fell from the roof. Former City Councilman Ken Fisher happened to walk by and called the NYC Landmark Conservancy for help. Nii got the money for the repairs, which cost $70,000.

Right now, the roof is leaking and the cornice is lifting. The scaffolding has been for the work, which has been stalled while the architects try to find antique marble to match the exterior. WAH was shut down for four years while they installed fire escapes. They’re currently searching for funding to put in elevators, so that the gallery and performance space can be handicap friendly. No elevators also means no heavy art or set pieces.

Nii comes up with creative solutions to this problem. The current show is called Over the Edge: Paperworks Unbound. It was an open submission for artwork of any subject, as long as it was made out of paper. The second installment of this show opened in December. While the entire building’s maintenance has been shaky, WAH, which Nii directs with President Terrance Lindall, has been running strongly since she opened in 1996. They’ve held over 300 exhibitions with over 3,000 artists. and held numerous performance programs. The gallery has limited hours, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I work on the weekends, which explains why my weekday doorbell rings were never answered. Nii said it was fortuitous that I came when I did, as she had only stopped by to let in an artist. Nii hugged me goodbye, and I left with a promise to come back soon.