The New York Earth Room

By Dora Dmitriev

In a highly desired 3,600 square foot Soho loft with pristine white walls and large windows, lies 280,000 pounds of dirt. The 22-inch-high layer of dirt is 40 years old and is The New York Earth Room, an interior earth sculpture by American artist Walter De Maria. This is the third Earth Room sculpture executed by the artist, with the first two being in Munich and Darmstadt Germany, 1968 and 1974 respectively. The first two works no longer exist.


Installation of the first 1968 Earth Room at Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Munich, Germany

The Earth Room in Soho was commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation and created in 1977. It has been on long-term view to the public since 1980. To enter the gallery you must buzz the front desk and climb the stairs to the second floor. You enter the loft and become overwhelmed by the rich smell of soil and damp earthy air. This contrast is incredible given that you come in from the busy, smelly streets of Manhattan. The gallery is very quiet and observing the soil in this otherwise empty space creates a serene place to renew oneself, meditate, and escape. It makes you think about Earth’s relationship to the universe-perhaps as De Maria intended.


Walter De Maria at the first 1968 Earth Room

The New York Earth Room in Soho, Manhattan

When being in such a space all I naturally wanted to do was go play in the dirt and feel the rich soil. However, this and photography are not allowed. The only man that has permission to touch the dirt is Bill Dilworth. He has become the closest human connection to the Earth Room since the death of De Maria in 2013. His job is to keep the soil looking like it has since the first day the sculpture was on view. He waters and rakes the loft once a week with a hundred foot hose, then scrapes off splattered mud from the white walls. Dilworth has found earthworms and mushrooms throughout the field that only receives sunlight from the windows and water from his care.

Natural and artificial lighting in the Earth Room

The New York Earth Room is located on 141 Wooster Street in Manhattan and is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12–6 pm (closed from 3–3:30 pm). The Gallery closes for the summer on Sunday, June 11, 2017 and reopens on Wednesday, September 6, 2017. The free permanent installation is worth at least a million dollars, but the loft in trendy Soho is worth much more.

In a city where there is so little space that hasn’t been built on, the Earth Room is a special place that is untouched by the chaos ensuing outside. It is worth a visit especially when you need a break from the bustle of the city or miss the feel of vast open land.