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They sure don't make billionaires like they used to.

A little over a century ago, when Andrew Carnegie built his eponymous concert hall at the corner of 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, he didn't just want to give New York a room blessed with shimmering acoustics; he envisioned an entire artistic community taking hold. So up above the hall he built another two towers, of 12 storeys and 16 storeys respectively, filled with 170 ateliers outfitted with sleeping lofts: La Bohème in midtown.

The idea was that artists - painters, poets and teachers of dance, music and acting - would work and live in the spaces, paying market rents that would subsidize the operations of the concert hall downstairs. The architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who also designed the Dakota and the Plaza Hotel, understood the needs of artists: Many of the studios were double-height, gifted with rare acoustics and north-facing windows.

The Carnegie Artist Studios, as they are known, played a central role in the American arts. Isadora Duncan's Ballet Arts began in Studio 160. George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham taught and rehearsed there. Wynn Handman, the dean of Stanislavskian acting teachers, has instructed John Turturro, Mira Sorvino, Joanne Woodward, Denzel Washington, Eric Bogosian, and Allison Janney in his eighth-floor studio. Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein bumped into each other in the hallway and started talking about a show that became On the Town, which they developed in one of the studios. Enrico Caruso was so taken with the acoustics of Studio 826 that he made his first recording for RCA there. Norman Mailer, Marlon Brando and Spencer Tracy lived in the studios. The poet Elizabeth Sargent still calls the place home.

"Many of the tenants talk about the spirit of the studios," said the photographer Josef Astor on Friday afternoon, when I visited his skylighted garret where he once photographed a young Uma Thurman for Vanity Fair.

"Just as they do in the main hall, when people perform downstairs and they speak about all the cumulative spirits who have performed here - it's the same in the studios."

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped by Handman's cozy studio to get a feel for the way things used to be there. "Well, it's almost 2 o'clock," he noted. "Within an hour or two when school lets out, you'd see little girls in tutus, chirping away and singing. It was like 100 Degas paintings all around you. You'd see a singing teacher in the next place, and a violin-maker over there. It was a community of artists."

Handman spoke in the past tense because the studios themselves may soon be in the past tense. Last summer, a day after he was awarded a mayoral proclamation for excellence and service to the American theatre on his 85th birthday, Handman was served with another official document: an eviction notice. In time, so were the other 29 remaining tenants. For almost three decades now, as tenants have moved out or died, the spaces they vacated have been left empty - their kitchens and sleeping lofts ripped out to preclude further residential use - or converted to sterile office space for the use of the Carnegie Hall Corporation.

The corporation now wants to expand the activities of its music institute, and says it must kick out the remaining tenants because it needs the space.

Here's the best part of the story. (And by best, I mean most bitterly ironic.) Back in 1960, when John D. Rockefeller III and the city's other power brokers were looking to crown the new Lincoln Center as the premiere place for classical music, they manhandled the New York Philharmonic into moving there from Carnegie Hall.

Losing its anchor tenant, Carnegie Hall would be demolished to make way for a 44-storey office tower. But mere days before the wrecking ball was to hit, the studios' residents shamed the city into buying the hall and leasing it to the newly created, non-profit Carnegie Hall Corporation.

The terms of the lease dictated that the purposes of the hall and the studios were not to change. But somewhere along the line, the corporation evidently decided otherwise.

And now here is Sanford Weill, a man who fancies himself something of a latter-day Andrew Carnegie, with a matching ego to boot. The former head of Citigroup, he is the chairman of the Carnegie Hall board of directors.

He already has his name on the building's 268-seat chamber-music space, once known as Carnegie Recital Hall and now called Weill Recital Hall.

Family concerts, professional-training workshops and visits to the hall by the city's schoolchildren occur under the aegis of the Weill Music Institute, the organization now eyeing the studio spaces.

I'm all in favour of more music education for children; despite this city's worldwide reputation in the arts, its public-school system treats music and the visual arts as luxuries to be taught when and if the mood strikes. (And with Mayor Michael Bloomberg now demanding a 6 per cent cut across the city's budgets, including the school board, the situation will only get worse.) But it seems fairly clear that Carnegie Hall Corporation is being duplicitous when it says it needs all the studios for its Weill Institute. On my visit with Handman the other day, his student Billy Lyons pointed out that Isadora Duncan's Studio 160 is now a Carnegie Hall telemarketing office. "There's no excuse for that," said Lyons. "You can put a telemarketing office anywhere."

The fight has now been taken up by celebrities. John Turturro headlined a slim rally outside City Hall in January, noting that the city owns Carnegie Hall and calling on Bloomberg to step in. Susan Sarandon and Robert De Niro have lent their names to the cause. Last week, Joanne Woodward, who still studies with Handman, reached out to the Coalition to Save Carnegie Artist Studios to see how she might be able to help.

"Environment is extremely important to artists," Handman said. "Environment is made up of many things: one, the physical environment; and two, the congeniality and the spirit of the people around you. That's all being demolished."

A week ago, Turturro and members of the Coalition met with representatives of the Carnegie Hall Corporation to ask that, at the very least, the handful of older artists be allowed to stay in their studios. Failing that, the Coalition is asking the Hall to assist in the artists' relocation.

But really, what's the point in that? Carnegie Hall Corporation, which has spent heavily on legal fees and forfeited decades' worth of rent in order to pry the studios out of the hands of artists, obviously would be happy to throw a little bit more money at the problem to make it go away. The artists - all of them - must be allowed to stay, and the studios kept in operation in perpetuity. Otherwise, Sanford Weill had better start thinking about how he's going to explain to Andrew Carnegie why he messed up his hall.