New York Earth Room

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 18 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A large room full of dirt

In 1977 Walter De Maria constructed the New York Earth Room, a site-specific artwork commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation.  De Maria took a second floor space in a typical SoHo building on Wooster Street and filled it, throughout, with 250 cubic yards of earth.  That’s a 22-inch depth of material across the whole space.  280,000 pounds of art!

And if you know where to go, on days when it’s open, you ring a bell and get buzzed in and walk up to the second floor to see a large room full of dirt.

Visitors are asked not to photograph the Earth Room (at De Maria’s request).  I considered posting a picture of the picture on the brochure, but I think this is one of those places you’re better off seeing with fresh eyes.

The Earth Room surprised me in a few regards. 

It’s very peaceful.  My first note is “Exactly what it sounds like. Quiet.  So quiet.”

It says something about the line between nature and the constructed environment.  Bare lightbulbs, large SoHo windows, and the plumbing for the fire sprinklers on the ceiling contrast with a plain of black soil down below. It didn’t smell as much as I thought it would — I was expecting a rich earthiness, and not so much.  It was humid as heck, though; one way you can tell it’s there from the outside is the windows are probably continually fogged up in wintertime.

People actually go to visit it.  I expected I’d be the only one there, but about 8 people came in the ~20 minutes I was pondering it, and more were entering as I was exiting.

I asked the caretaker / curator if anything ever grew in it, and he said that he rakes it regularly, which pretty much ensures nothing takes root.  But earlier in its existence mushrooms would grow occasionally.  They don’t pop up so much anymore, and he was bummed about that.  I asked why, thinking that the sight of growing things might’ve been part of De Maria’s larger point or something, but he said, “because they were delicious.”  But at the same time, he’s pretty sure life is lurking in the soil.  I hope so.  I’d hate to think it’s just sterile mineral at this point.

I don’t think the Earth Room is hugely edifying or entertaining.  It just is what it is.  And yet, I absolutely think people should make a special trip there.  It’s far and away the least commercial thing in SoHo — there’s no gift shop, no admission charge. No sign out front, even.  I dearly love the things about this city that are hidden behind closed doors, up or down unprepossessing staircases…  How many people walk by that building on Wooster on their SoHo shopping trips, never suspecting that above them, behind those foggy windows, the earth abides?

For Reference:

Address 141 Wooster Street, Manhattan
Cost Free


3 Replies to “New York Earth Room”

Comments are closed.