For years, Jane DeBevoise ran the Asia Art Archive out of the basement of her Brooklyn Heights apartment. The reference books and exhibition catalogues were piled up to the point that events had gotten tricky; people had to squeeze in if they wanted to hear Lin Yilin discuss his latest performance piece or attend a zine-making workshop. But on a morning walk back in 2018, she noticed a for-sale sign posted on the front of an old carriage house. “I don’t know what possessed me to call the number,” DeBevoise, who has been running the overseas branch of the Hong Kong archive since 2009, said. “But I was like, ‘Hi, I’m looking for a home for a nonprofit.’” This is how she found 23 Cranberry Street.
In another act of real-estate serendipity, the broker who picked up the phone told her to stay put, showing up a few minutes later with a big ring of keys. As Pat Perlman showed her around the space, DeBevoise was surprised by the work tables and materials — metal scraps, wood blocks, steel beams — she found lying around. It also didn’t feel like a conventional home: The cellar and first floor were set up as open-plan studio space with parts of metal-working forges inside. She had, she realized, stumbled across the former home of the artists John and Richenda Rhoden.
The couple bought the century-old building in 1960 for $24,000. It had been a commercial garage, complete with a car elevator, when the Rhodens moved in. In a 1966 Newsday interview, the couple detailed how they spent six years renovating the space, scavenging discarded materials from old buildings nearby — mirrors on the wall came from a shuttered barbershop; 300-pound slate flagstones they used for their floors were taken from the walls of an educational institute. When asked how they figured out how to do all of the construction work themselves, Richenda replied: “We went to the public library and read.” The interiors were just as thoughtfully curated. “The way people throw around ‘mid-century modern’ to describe a whole bunch of things — you see old photos of them in the house, and you’re like, Oh, this is mid-century modern,” Brittany Webb, curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, said.
The home had been on the market for years following Richenda’s death in 2016, and Robert Anker, the executor of the Rhodens’ estate, had been struggling to find a buyer given the building’s quirks. DeBevoise saw the potential. She bought the property not long after she first saw it for $5.5 million. The preservation of the Rhodens’ home as an arts institution — rather than a quaint family home for a Goldman executive or a celebrity with a Toteme habit — is a rarity for the neighborhood. (Last year, Amy Schumer paid $12.5 million for the Moonstruck house just two doors away.) The proceeds of the sale went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which took in John Rhoden’s work and now maintains his archive. “When I realized that PAFA would get the money, I was like, It’s a dream deal,” DeBevoise said.
Converting the space into the Asia Art Archive, which took two years during COVID, was fairly low-impact. DeBevoise kept much of the structure of the original space intact and preserved the slate flagstone floors and repurposed an Indonesian railroad tie to use as a bench in the cellar for guests. Where sculptures once lined the wall now stand bookshelves and a long desk with research computers. (The project, overseen by architect Ben Baxt, recently won a preservation award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy.) When I asked DeBevoise how much it cost to renovate, she would only say “less than you think.”
One thing DeBevoise regrets having to lose is the freight elevator, which Richenda had used as her studio later in life, because it had a number of violations with the Department of Buildings. It’s hard for an archivist to throw something out. “It was from the 1800s and we really wanted to donate it somewhere,” she said. “There’s even an elevator museum in Oklahoma, but no one wanted it.”