No Palazzo Chupi in Bedford Falls

by Sandy Ikeda

Palazzo Chupi
(Photo by Erik J. Sommer)

This is artist and film-maker Julian Schnabel’s fantastical condo, “Palazzo Chupi,” a multi-story, candy-colored “palace” planted onto an old garage in the West Village in Manhattan. More on this in a moment. But first I’d like to talk about the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

You know the story, about how a man, George Bailey, comes to realize that his lifelong sacrifices have dramatically changed the fortunes of the people in his hometown of Bedford Falls, New York. I don’t usually plan to watch it, partly because I think I’ve seen it enough times, but also because it’s painful to watch how, over the years, circumstances grind down bright and ambitious George into a “warped, frustrated, young man.” There’s no getting around how dark most of Frank Capra’s movie is, despite its uplifting denouement. But if it’s on I often end up watching because the script, to which Dorothy Parker contributed, and cast are so good.

(This last time I found myself trying to think of a plausible explanation for why it stops snowing when Bedford Falls turns into seamy Pottersville, but then starts snowing again when George gets put back and Bedford Falls returns. I’ve got one, but anyway….)

Then I came across Wendell Jamieson’s piece in last Friday’s New York Times, “Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life,” which might make you slap your head. It points out that Pottersville,

a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve …looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

That had never occurred to me. Jamieson also makes the interesting urbanist observation that

Pottersville [is] cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Wonderful Life” manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly. On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.

…a conclusion supported in the article by Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University (whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting).

Too bad about old Bedford Falls, but dynamic urban environments are necessarily places of creative destruction. Living things can’t be preserved. Indeed, someone with George Bailey’s drive and openness might never have wanted to leave Bedford Falls if it somehow became Pottersville — the kind of place that would tolerate a Palazzo Chupi. He might have built it himself.


Which brings me back to Palazzo Chupi. My wife and I were introduced to this magnificent anomaly on a Municipal Art Society walking tour in the fall. A recent New York magazine article says about the “lollipop house”: “It may not look like New York, but it embodies the dream of New York” and elaborates by quoting Schnabel: “I remember feeling this when I came back here in 1973: You walk down the street, and you think that anything is possible.” But where anything is possible, little can be sacred.

And if he had fulfilled his dream of “building cities,” that’s something I think George Bailey would have come to accept.


2 thoughts on “No Palazzo Chupi in Bedford Falls

  1. Chupi is one of the best things to have been built in NYC or anywhere in years. Not because it’s very attractive — it’s not at all — but because it is so outrageous and over-the-top and in the center of the stodgy old West Village. It honors the past by reusing the preexisting building, but also thumbs its nose at the past by slapping a big pink cartoony blob of random Mediterranea on top. Daring and almost hideous things like Chupi are what make cities exciting. As beautiful as they are in their own right, who can deny that endless blocks of perfect brownstones are booooring? I would prefer more hat tips to the past than slavish museum-like preservation of it. It’s phony, and cities should change just as society has over the last 100 years.

    I would never design Chupi myself. But I love that we live in a world where someone else might — and spend tens of millions doing it. What an amazing time.

  2. I recently passed by Chupi for the first time, and was fascinated by the building. Although, I hadn’t known anything about it at the time, I knew there had to be an interesting story behind it…

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