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Tale of a Classic SoHo Loft

Linda Sampson bought her loft in SoHo back in 1972 for $15,000. “That was a lot,” said Ms. Sampson, an artist, who had to borrow $10,000 from her father to close on the apartment. “I could have bought a co-op on the Bowery for $5,000, but I thought, ‘Who wants to live on the Bowery?’ ”

As for SoHo, “I loved it,” she said, leaning her cheek into her hand one afternoon last month, among her last days in the 2,200-square-foot loft. Light spilled in from the enormous front windows that overlook West Broadway, and her 17-year-old orange tabby, Sammy, trailed her as she moved through the partially cleared-out apartment in a wheelchair.

“I was a baby Fluxus person. This is where I wanted to be. In the evenings — I don’t drink, I never have — but I would go to the Spring Street Bar. That’s where I met a lot of the other artists,” said Ms. Sampson, who recently turned 75. “Nam June Paik, he really had a crush on me. He would take me everywhere, to dinner with John Cage.”

Ms. Sampson’s loft sold earlier this year for $2.4 million — the kind of mythic real estate deal that every property owner dreams of and only a vanishingly small number ever see. She would have rather stayed than cash out, but she needed the money from the sale for retirement.

“When I bought it, I kind of didn’t care if it was a good investment,” said Ms. Sampson, who makes fabric art, appliqués and beadwork and also worked as a stylist for film. “Over the years, I started seeing people selling their lofts and how much they got. But I just loved it so much. I really planned to live here my entire life.”

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Credit...Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

The artists who drew her to the neighborhood in her youth have all but disappeared. Some became famous, many did not, and the few who remain are, like Ms. Sampson, now in the autumn of their lives. The neighborhood itself, meanwhile, despite its pristinely preserved cast iron buildings and cobblestone streets, is all but unrecognizable from the one that captivated her, having changed over the last 48 years from an affordable enclave where people came to make things to a high-end retail and residential district where people come to buy things.

“It’s certainly true of city life that the people who give neighborhoods their character move on and it fades,” said Sharon Zukin, a City University of New York sociology professor who wrote “Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change,” one of the pivotal texts on SoHo’s transformation from artist enclave to tourist attraction. “But the reputation as an artists’ neighborhood remains long after the artists have moved on.”

The city had legalized loft living in 1971, the year before Ms. Sampson arrived, allowing certified artists to establish live/work spaces in SoHo’s cast iron buildings, which had been built as gracious showrooms in the 1800s and were later repurposed for industrial use. In postwar years, as many of the neighborhood’s factories closed, the spaces were left vacant and their owners were eager to rent or sell them to artists for a song.

Even before the zoning changes that allowed artists to live in the neighborhood’s commercial buildings, “no one but artists wanted to live here. You had to hide from building inspectors and paper over the windows so they couldn’t see the lights on at night,” said lifelong SoHo resident Yukie Ohta, who grew up there in the 1970s and started the SoHo Memory Project. “There was no garbage pickup, no schools, no grocery stores.”

There is no reliable tally of how many original artists still live in SoHo today, but Ms. Ohta said the number was dwindling. “I’ve come across a number of them in my work over the last 10 years, but that whole generation is dying out,” she said. “My dad is turning 80 this year, my mom is in her 70s. It was a 50-year evolution. Linda’s life in SoHo is the life of SoHo.”

Credit...Tyrone Dukes/The New York Times

Back in 1972, Ms. Sampson was walking through the neighborhood when she saw a sign on her building’s door advertising co-op lofts for sale; she was one of the first to buy there. “I lucked into this space,” she said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but because it’s the parlor floor, it has the highest ceilings and the biggest windows.”

She grew up in Woodhaven, Queens, a neighborhood “I couldn’t wait to leave.” After getting a teaching scholarship to N.Y.U., she rented a tiny walk-up on Avenue B, where she lived until buying the loft.

One of the first things she did after moving in was to get an 8-foot work table. “For the first time in my life I didn’t have to do everything on the dining room table,” she said.

Ms. Sampson’s primary medium was fabric, which she used in a variety of ways. In the 1970s, she made, showed and sold bluejeans decorated with appliqués of birds, flowers and trees, among other things, using salvaged and found materials. A 1971 New York Times Magazine article that declared jeans “the current uniform of the young in spirit,” featured jeans made to order by Ms. Sampson that sold for $200.

She also did fabric illustrations for magazines and other publications using appliqué techniques and worked as a costume designer and stylist, including for National Lampoon magazine. Later, “I fell in love with beadwork,” she said. “It’s more like sculpture. Once they’re unstrung, it’s really malleable.”

Credit...Rachel Kuzma

Ms. Sampson partitioned the loft into two rooms, built out the kitchen and the bathroom and eventually added a mezzanine for sleeping. The space looks much the same as it did back then: the ceilings are beamed or tin, the floors painted wood and there’s a potbelly stove, which she installed during her first few years in the apartment, before the building added a boiler, and fed with wood harvested from factories’ discard piles.

Her friend, Joanne Milazzo, who lives nearby in the South Village, remembers seeing Ms. Sampson around the neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s. “She was like a bird of paradise in jeans and Victorian lace blouses,” Ms. Milazzo said. “She had long red hair that would be pinned up with chopsticks or something like that, long earrings. She was unforgettable.”

“She used to have the best parties,” said another friend, Natalie Albert. “There would always be wonderful people from the arts having fascinating, interesting conversations around the loft space.”

But while Ms. Sampson’s decision to buy the loft turned out to be a brilliant investment, she sunk money into a lot of things that weren’t: a historic house in New Orleans that ended up being a money pit, an alcoholic (now) ex-husband, antiques.

For a while it didn’t matter. She made good money as a stylist and sold her beadwork, done in the French floral style popular in Victorian-era New Orleans, at a gallery there. She has also had a roommate for the last five or six years, Tony Arnaud, a film grip who had been living in the loft building next door and moved into the loft when Ms. Sampson was in New Orleans; when she returned he became her roommate, taking over the mezzanine when she couldn’t manage the stairs anymore; over time he has increasingly became a helper/aide.

By the summer of 2018, she had fallen into debt and called Sydney Blumstein, a Corcoran real estate agent, to talk about selling the loft.

Having grown up downtown, Ms. Blumstein had passed through any number of lofts in her childhood, “but Linda had more epic treasures than I’ve ever seen,” she said. There were antiques, art supplies, period tableware sets, furniture and props from movies that Ms. Sampson had worked on, books, records and racks upon racks of vintage clothes.

They talked at length, but Ms. Sampson wasn’t ready to let go yet. She still hoped she might be able to head off a sale by renting out the loft for film shoots and selling things on eBay and Etsy.

A year and a half later, Ms. Blumstein received another call. The loft had to be sold and quickly, to avoid foreclosure.

Credit...Rachel Kuzma

Ms. Blumstein took honest photos of the space, capturing the charm, but also the clutter and wear and tear that had accrued over nearly 50 years. They listed the loft at $1.99 million, underpriced because of the sale’s many contingencies and complications. The back windows, for example, could not be accessed: one was covered by a metal shutter, a vestige of the building’s industrial past, and the others were obscured by heavy curtains, the path to them blocked by furniture and an unfinished second bathroom.

Ms. Sampson would also need to sublet the space back from the new owners after the sale went through because she couldn’t qualify for a rental otherwise.

Ms. Blumstein scheduled two open houses in late January. About 450 people showed up; there were lines around the block. Ms. Sampson sat inside, receiving her many visitors and answering questions about her life and the history of the neighborhood. In the end, they received 14 all-cash offers.

“I’ve never seen something more indicative of SoHo than this experience,” Ms. Blumstein said.

Except, perhaps, for the buyers. Susan and Edward Plesnitzer were not the chrome- and steel-loving financial titans that Ms. Sampson had braced herself for. A couple in their late 60s, the Plesnitzers spent their careers working in the nonprofit world. They liked the unpretentious vibe of Ms. Sampson’s building.

“We loved that it had no doorman,” Mr. Plesnitzer said. “When we were looking for places in the same price range, we saw a lot of doormen, marble staircases. We’re not that kind of people.”

The Plesnitzers, who were represented in the deal by their son Michael, spent most of their adult lives on Long Island, but for the past 20 years, they kept a studio apartment in the East Village and recently decided to move to the city full time.

“The beauty of New York is that it opens you up to meeting a diverse group of people,” Mr. Plesnitzer said. “Long Island is the opposite of that.”

“It’s very boring,” Ms. Plesnitzer said. “As we’re getting older, we wanted something more stimulating.”

What they liked about the neighborhood was its accessibility. They both love to walk and have been crossing through SoHo for the last two decades as they roved around Downtown. As for the apartment, it offered a tremendous amount of space and light for the money, the same qualities that had charmed Ms. Sampson 48 years ago.

Ms. Sampson had been hopeful that she might find a similarly sized space to rent nearby. With the windfall from the sale, she had a rental budget of $6,000 a month, but staying Downtown would have necessitated moving to a much smaller space, which she didn’t want to do.

Credit...Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

Instead, she signed a two-year lease on a large Tudor-style house in Rego Park, Queens. “It’s very close to where I grew up,” she said. “I guess I’m kind of going back to my start.”

Her roommate, Mr. Arnaud, is moving to Rego Park with her and spent the last month hauling furniture and boxes there to make Ms. Sampson’s end-of-August move-out date. “We all tried to talk her into getting a two-bedroom apartment nearby,” he said. “But she wanted to remember the past. So her whole loft is there now.”

He wasn’t sure Rego Park was a good idea, but then again, besides a few friends, she didn’t really have a community left in SoHo anymore, either. “Those days are over,” he said.

“Most of the things I like are gone,” Ms. Sampson said. Dean & DeLuca closed last year and many of the artisan shops that followed in the galleries’ wake disappeared long ago: the fine jewelry stores, Norma Kamali and her famous sleeping bag coats, all the little coffee shops and restaurants. “It’s become very generic,” she said. Besides the Porto Rico Importing Company, an old neighborhood standby where she buys coffee, the only other place Ms. Sampson shops nearby is Morton Williams.

“When someone like Linda leaves SoHo, it loses one of the sparks of light and history,” said her friend, Ms. Albert. “But then, the neighborhood isn’t what it was. All the people in the arts who had a skill and a talent and a dream, who came and interacted, that’s what made it so special and vibrant.

“Linda and her loft are a piece of the past,” she continued. “Another piece of the past that’s moving on.”

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