Saving the Seamen’s House YMCA

August 23rd, 2013 by admin


Designed as a waterfront YMCA for sailors, Seamen’s House has scores of multi-colored terra cotta highlights. Stylized ships’ prows, waves, and Jazz Age riffs on the YMCA’s triangle logo are deployed for maximum effect, lighting up the building’s roof line and window heads. They are an integral part of the building’s composition, and their cleaning and minimal restoration would do much to revitalize a work by great Art Deco designers. Heavy-framed, rusty security screens tell of the building’s more recent use as a prison. Their removal would also greatly improve the appeal of this easily overlooked building.  


Built in 1930-1932, the Seamen’s House YMCA was designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon at the very time the architects were at work on the Empire State Building. This photo, published in Architectural Record in May, 1932, shows a large sign advertising the institution’s presence to sailors up and down pier-lined Eleventh Avenue.     


Despite security accretions, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon’s elegant entrance still gives the block a graceful corner . . .    


. . . including a sleek ship silhouette . . .    


. . . and sculpted-in lighting fixtures just begging for restoration.  


The building’s soot smudged brick and terra cotta would revive dramatically with cleaning and less sloppy repointing . . .


. . . just as removal of the prison’s roof fence would restore a romantic skyline.    


An 1930s Bromley Atlas shows the Seamen’s House YMCA, top center, directly across from the White Star Line piers for which the Titanic had set out.


Sprawling from Little West 12th to West 23rd Street, the Chelsea Piers were designed by Warren & Wetmore, architects of Grand Central Terminal. The future site of the Seamen’s House YMCA is in the left distance in this photo.


The piers’ grand, globe-peaked street front is sadly gone, a caution to those who would throw away the kind of architecture no longer made. (Warren & Wetmore’s Michigan Central Station may stand as a symbol of Detroit’s decline, but it stands nonetheless, holding a possibility of rebirth.)

The Seamen’s House YMCA operated until 1966, after which its building was made a medium security women’s prison, the Bayview Correctional Facility.  As reported in a New York Times article on Tuesday, that role has ended and the state plans to sell the building. The article quotes local community board member Pamela Wolff as saying she considers the prison’s loss a tragedy: “The amount of recidivism was minimal. For those women, for this community, which for 35 years has been in perfect harmony with the use of that facility, the repercussions will never be measured.” Unlike upstate facilities, Bayview’s location allowed women to be near their families, a critical factor for those – many of them non-violent Rockefeller drug law violators - primarily needing to just get their lives back on track. Ms. Wolff’s sentiment reflects a larger concern, the loss of inclusive community fabric to steamrolling fabulousness. What Chelsea faces today is a different animal from gentrification. Beyond natives displaced by the rich, basic social building blocks from the corner store to rehabilitation facilities are giving way to tourist attractions and extra homes for the super-rich.

Developers are said to be circling the Seamen’s House YMCA like vultures, but others have expressed less mercenary interest. Anne Elliott of Greenhope Services for Women would like to see the building help formerly imprisoned women transition back to community life. Greenhope has a renovation architect on board and much good will in Chelsea. With an eye on the building’s still existing YMCA gym and pool, Hudson Guild Director Ken Jockers sees a venue for dedicated, programmable community space. These purposes would make use of the building’s existing interior while preserving an exterior that irreplaceably embodies the community’s unique past and the authenticity of its historic identity.

The building’s fate turns on the receptiveness of the Governor’s office and creation of preservation and re-use strategies that can harness market forces. The building is not a landmark, and its sale into private hands puts it at great risk of demolition for new development. Community Board 4 has asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to evaluate Seamen’s House for landmark designation. This would be warranted not just by the building’s substantial architectural merit, but perhaps even more by the unique working-waterfront history it tells. At the time Seamen’s House was built, the YMCA was one of three seamen’s welfare organizations operating on the Greenwich Village-Chelsea waterfront, along with the American Seamen’s Friend Society and the Seamen’s Christian Association. Designating Seamen’s House a landmark would be consistent with the designation in 2000 of the American Seamen’s Friend Society Sailors’ Home and Institute at 505-507 West Street, now the Jane Hotel, as well as the 2007 designation of the Keller Hotel at 150 Barrow Street. The latter is cited in its landmark designation report as “a significant reminder of the era when the Port of New York was one of the world’s busiest and the section of the Hudson River between Christopher and 23rd Streets was the heart of the busiest section of the Port of New York,” a description which applies no less to Seamen’s House.    


What might replace the Seamen’s House YMCA? Predictably, out-of-sight luxury condominiums for mainly absent and never seen residents, like 200 Eleventh Avenue. Its forbidding, anonymous and lifeless street presence says everything about such buildings’ contribution to the community. The dead zone around it isn’t even animated by residents walking through its lobby doors. When in town, they’re driven onto a car elevator and ascend to ”sky garages” adjoining their apartments, averting any risk of exposure to the community.

It’s a tribute to Chelsea that its citizens can lament the closing of a local prison that kept inmates close to their outside support network. In the city at large, community introduction of social programs from halfway houses to public high schools routinely meets with agreement that they are necessary, just “not in my back yard,” the source of the acronym, NIMBY. Pro-development types have co-opted this term, painting preservationists as NIMBYs against new construction. Their appropriation of it conveniently diverts accusations of self interest from themselves onto community advocates. They should know the label won’t stick to Chelsea.

Looking Over the Bike Share Gift Horse

July 12th, 2013 by admin

Central Park users rub shoulders with cars on the main loop road until 7PM on weekdays, even though Olmsted and Vaux’s 1857 park design is predicated on sunken transverse roads to block out the sight and sound of street traffic. It’s hard to say what’s worse; the exhaust sucked into lungs of joggers or the nullification of a planned and celebrated refuge from the streets. The deference to cars is striking, given that most New Yorkers don’t own one and under a quarter of Manhattan households do.



Move it over, city folk; cars coming through! An advertisement in a 1909 issue of Life magazine aims at city dwellers, the logical market when the great majority of Americans, and certainly those of means, lived in cities.



On July 8, 1909, the New York Times published this illustration of “The New Fifth Avenue: New York City’s Greatest Driveway,” showing its planned widening by fifteen feet for vehicles. The image is a reminder that New York wasn’t conceived around the demands of the automobile, and it shows the pedestrian literally losing ground. The choice to widen Fifth Avenue, then more associated with the carriage trade than delivery trucks, suggests an upper class invested in the automobile.

The proletarian Model T notwithstanding, cars remained a luxury well into the twentieth century. In 1925’s The Great Gatsby, a rich man is driven by his mistress in a luxury car; they mow down a lower class victim and leave the scene. The circumstances of their hit-and-run were still a potent class commentary in 1987 when they were replicated in another quintessential New York novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. The available range of car models has long been a matter not of varied needs, but of gradations of style finely calibrated in response to the social status and aspirations of the market. Trading up from a Chevy to a Buick is about much more than finishes. In the context of such ingrained class sensitivity, having cars displaced by mere bicycles is bound to be apocalyptic. Status goes a long way toward explaining the hysteria over the bike share docking stations for New York’s new Citi Bike system.

It’s impossible to bicycle in New York without feeling engaged in class warfare. When I first bought a bike to ride to work, I picked up a guidebook to cycling basics and was puzzled to find a chapter on activism. My puzzlement lasted exactly as long as it took to find out my compact new bike wasn’t allowed on any elevator at work. Cars may be welcome in Central Park against history’s and Olmsted’s intentions, but my bike wasn’t worthy of the freight elevator. Outside the million square foot office building, a single inverted “U” rack had a stripped bike frame chained to it, like a skeleton at a poisoned watering hole. Citi Bike removes this kind of impediment, and even the purchase of a bike, from the path of the novice bike commuter.



This bike share station in front of Manhattan’s Main Post Office is all but empty on a recent morning rush hour, pointing to heavy use of the system for commuting. The station is adjacent to the Eighth Avenue protected bike lane, at right.



Turning around and looking uptown from the same location on Wednesday of last week at 8:50AM, a line of parked police cars fills the bike lane.  This section of it is occasionally used as an NYPD parking lot.



The officer who double parked in the bike lane that day would probably never have thought of parking in a vehicle traffic lane, but completely blocked bikes with evident bravado, forcing several cyclists a minute into traffic. Instances of cyclists struck by cars receive notoriously little follow-up from the NYPD.  According to a StreetsBlog article, “The overwhelming majority of injuries to city cyclists and pedestrians — debilitating, life-altering wounds included — are never investigated by police, much less prosecuted.” A New York Times article, “Reckless Drivers Who Hit People Face Few Penalties in New York,” states that many motorists are never even ticketed for taking a life. Unless eyewitnesses come forward, hit and run drivers readily escape prosecution by claiming they never saw the victim; New York’s ”leaving the scene” law requires the driver to have known personal injury was caused. Without witnesses, the driver’s word may outweigh evidence.

When not being characterized as “sociopaths on wheels” by the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo (“The bike-lane cancer”), New York cyclists are often viewed as indulging in frivolity in the path of drivers just trying to get to work or do a job. This bias was promoted in last Sunday’s New York Times, where Matt Flegenheimer’s article about the bike share stations began: “They rose from the earth overnight, some said, muscling the cars from their curbside perches: more than 300 hulking monuments to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s surrender to the whims of the New York City cyclist.” Perhaps he’s being ironic, but his look at New Yorkers’ appropriation of the docks as street furniture takes time to give ammunition to bike share opponents, pointing out one station’s accumulation of “rotting strawberries, pale fries, an empty can of an alcoholic energy drink and a crushed pack of cigarettes.” He then takes a magnifying glass to “the dirt-specked water that tends to pool in the corridors between curbs and stations, even well after a downpour,” as if peering for microbes in the mouth of a gift horse.  Dirt specks! In New York! Flegenheimer might have balanced his reporting that “the bike-sharing stations remain a source of dismay to some residents” by noting the opinion of many that they’re a sane alternative to urban driving. He himself reported in the Times last year that drivers predictably kill over 150 New York pedestrians and cyclists a year. What’s an isolated incidence of litter on a bike share station compared to the climate change that now has many of us living in marked-down Flood Zone A real estate, if our homes there still exist?



Although it was said the bike share docks would block trash pick-up, this sanitation worker isn’t missing a beat, without even using the nearby access space created by removal of a docking post.



Among other trumped up objections to the new bike share stations, they have been criticized for creating barriers in front of large apartment buildings. Closely parked cars create barriers too, as this photo shows. A parked car amounts to a private claim on public space, earned by a payment not to the city, but to General Motors. By contrast, Citi Bikes are a shared amenity within financial reach of all. Seven or eight bikes can fit in the space of a single parked car that may make a handful of trips a month. Each bike makes many trips a day. While a car is essential to some New Yorkers with special occupational or mobility needs, there are few places on earth where owning one is more discretionary. Most arguments against the bike share stations make sense only as tactics to defend on-street parking by car owners. Cars have a status long promoted by the automobile and oil industries, but the assignment of the urban cyclist to the status of bike messenger or fast food delivery guy will increasingly become a thing of the past as the bike share program broadens cycling into a mainstream layer of transportation. Entitlement to street parking for having the means to buy a car doesn’t stack up against the daily number of clean, safe bike trips across town represented by shared bikes’ appropriation of a parking space.

When I first became a bike commuter, a funny thing happened on the way home from the office. I skipped the final turn toward home to keep floating happily over the surface of the city and seeing its neighborhoods in a new, more reachable way. After twenty years of living here, it was as if New York opened up in a whole new way. I discovered parts of the city and its surroundings I’d never seen before, soon in the company of generous guides and new friends. Cycling lends itself to connection with surroundings and other cyclists, in sharp contrast to the anti-social encapsulation of driving, which turns our streets into rivers of crosswalk-nosing self interest and horn-blowing anger. The cyclist is surrounded by the open air of the public realm, the driver by an isolating bubble of private property. Many Citi Bike commuters will dock their bikes with a twinge of regret that the ride’s over. If that twinge means the ride of their life is about to begin, they’ll have the bike share gift horse to thank.

Mythical Lower Manhattan, Part 2

May 6th, 2013 by admin

The 2002 World Trade Center competition entry by the team of architects Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey and Steven Holl is shown in its finished form at left, and in an earlier study by Holl, at right. The images are juxtaposed as they appear in Holl’s book, Urbanisms. The finished scheme has the regimentation of Upper Manhattan’s street grid while the study suggests Lower Manhattan’s off-kilter intersections. (One legend has it that the slang meaning of “square” comes from Greenwich Village’s bohemian heyday, when free thinkers lived on its unaligned streets and conformists on uptown’s rectangular blocks.) Holl asserts that the distinction mattered to him, in his book Architecture Spoken:

I had been working on a vision called Parallax Towers years before, in which I envisioned horizontal linkage of vertical thin towers. The notion of these as hybrid buildings, meaning they had offices, living, commercial aspects and they were linked in section, orchestrating what is normally known as a vertical typology into a horizontal one. The flexibility of that idea would work for the program we were given for this new project. Peter Eisenman and I fought until the end on how the horizontals should meet the verticals. I always wanted them to move, as in my original project from the early nineties, but he wanted them straight. The compromise was to keep them straight.

Despite this lost battle, Holl would speak proudly of the end result in a lecture at SCI-Arc on September 11, 2003, and bitterly reject architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s description of its “icy rationality.” Nonetheless, his earlier resistance to the squared-off default, in what he calls “endless and enormously confrontational meetings,” is telling.    Read the rest of this entry »

Mythical Lower Manhattan, Part 1 – In Memory of Lebbeus Woods

January 1st, 2013 by admin

The Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan took this helicopter photo of Downtown blacked-out by Hurricane Sandy. A memorable New York Magazine cover, it resonates with a century-old genre; views of a transformed Lower Manhattan from above New York Harbor.


Lebbeus Woods died on October 30th, as Sandy left his downtown neighborhood in the darkness captured by Baan’s photo. His 1999 drawing, Lower Manhattan, shows the Hudson and East Rivers dammed, draining the harbor. “The underground – or lower Manhattan – is revealed,” Woods told BLDGBLOG’s Geoff Manaugh in an interview, continuing:

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lampur or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. . . . I wanted to suggest that Lower Manhattan – not lower downtown, but lower in the sense of below the city – could form a new relationship with the planet.

So it was a romantic idea – and the drawing is very conceptual in that sense.

But the exposure of the rock base, or the underground condition of the city, completely changes the scale relationship between the city and its environment. It’s peeling back the surface to see what the planetary reality is. And the new scale relationship is not about huge blockbuster buildings; it’s not about towers and skyscrapers. It’s about the relationship of the relatively small human scratchings on the surface of the earth compared to the earth itself.

Woods’ follows long traditions in both his speculation on the future of Lower Manhattan and his use of it as a scale reference. His image is prescient in omitting the World Trade Center towers. They are probably left out, along with the Manhattan Bridge, in the interest of romantic effect. Woods says he worked from aerial photographs. Some of these may have predated the World Trade Center and other blocky buildings he also left out. He’d have had plenty to choose from, given the historic popularity of the subject and viewpoint.

   Read the rest of this entry »

Statue of Liberty or Dipstick of the Apocalypse?

December 27th, 2012 by admin

This image by Owen Freeman illustrated last month’s New York Times post-Sandy op-ed by James Atlas, “Is This the End?” Freeman says in his blog that it was commissioned by Times Art Director Erich Nagler, who “proposed an underwater, Atlantis-type view of New York City.” Freeman shows working sketches for the Statue image as well as underwater views of Grand Central Terminal and a city intersection with skyscrapers. The Times’ selection of his Statue of Liberty image says something about what rattles us most. It also extends a long tradition of using the statue as a post-apocalyptic milestone, one with roots pre-dating the statue itself.

The Statue of Liberty is seen even farther submerged by global warming, but from above the water line, in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 Science Fiction film, A.I. As a sci-fi film device, this image has a clear heritage . . .

Franklin J. Shaffner’s 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, ends with this visual kicker, revealing that – spoiler alert! – the planet ruled by apes is no less than our own future earth, turned into a vast desert by man himself. Same recipe as now, but with sand substituted for water.

Planet of the Apes may have been the first film to show a ruined Statue of Liberty, but the idea has a longer history in print, as documented by the surely pseudonymous Joachim Boaz in his blog Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. He displays no fewer than six pulp science fiction covers showing the statue underwater, buried in desert sand, and discovered by spacemen or post-apocalyptic primitives. Selected above are, left to right, a 1941 magazine cover by Hubert Rogers, a 1953 magazine cover by Alex Schomburg and a 1959 novel cover by an illustrator known only as Blanchard.  These might be assumed to reflect Cold War insecurity, except for the Astounding Science Fiction cover from pre-Bomb 1941, which shows an overgrown statue approached by raft-borne throwbacks. Clearly, there’s something older at work.

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1817 draft of Ozymandias, from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, includes squiggles that might be a premonition of a certain green gown. It reads:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The statue’s arrogance might throw one off the scent, but the use of a shattered human form as a cultural momento mori undeniably sets the stage for our 71 year-old ruined-liberty trope. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” kicks the ladder from under whoever’s currently on the top rung. Shelley, influenced by the revolutionary writings of Thomas Paine, is thought to have been targeting the oppressive monarchy of George III.

Shelley’s poem resulted from a sonnet-writing competition with his friend Horace Smith in which both would take as their subject a ruined statue of Ramses II (photo: Mutjaba Chohan). It had recently been acquired by the British Museum and was then bound for London. Smith’s poem was originally also called Ozymandias, as the Egyptian Pharaoh was known in Greek sources. The Guardian published Shelley’s entry on January 11, 1818, and Smith’s on February 1, 1818. Smith’s version is a more direct warning to his world-dominating homeland:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,

Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws

The only shadow that the Desert knows.

“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,

“The King of kings: this mighty city shows

The wonders of my hand.” The city’s gone!

Naught but the leg remaining to disclose

The sight of that forgotten Babylon.

We wonder, and some hunter may express

Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness

Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,

He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess

What wonderful, but unrecorded, race

Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Smith is no Shelley, but in depicting a future regression of the human race he makes an astonishing leap into modern sci-fi territory, well trod from The Road Warrior to The Road. Sci-fi has always plundered more from the arts than the sciences, as witnessed by the derivation of Hollywood’s Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s novel, published the same year as her husband’s Ozymandias.

What made the Times prefer Owen Freeman’s submerged Statue of Liberty over his underwater Grand Central? It pulls a bigger rug out from under us as an iconic symbol of America and our values, but it has another kind of potency that relates to the sacredness of the human form. Early architects believed God made man in his own image, dignifying classical architecture’s basis in the human body. Imprinted with our own form, classical architecture would no doubt retain its power for us if we learned that God looked like a duck, because the human body is also imprinted on our psyche from day one. This is why so few things disturb us as much as the visible destruction of the body, why decapitation seems more horrible than mere death. Grand Central’s classical forms may be based on the body, but the Statue of Liberty is the body. An assault on it isn’t just symbolic, but ad hominum in a way our bodies register. We identify with the peril of chin-lapping waves.  Thank the personal violence of Shelley’s “trunkless legs of stone” and “shattered visage.” Never mind that the Statue of Liberty stands for the opposite of tyranny; the subversive power and romantic appeal of Shelley’s colossal ruin irresistibly fired the imagination as soon as America brought its ready-made colossus to the center of the world stage. Old Ozymandias was just rubbing his hands in the wings.

The Chelsea Market Deal, brought to you by ULURP

November 5th, 2012 by admin


From right to left, Amanda Burden, Christine Quinn, Mayor Bloomberg and Boss Tweed reprise Thomas Nast’s ring of passed blame around Chelsea Market in a flyer that’s started appearing on Chelsea streets.


On October 19th, I and others met with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to discuss Jamestown Properties’ proposed rezoning of Chelsea Market, aimed at adding over a quarter-million square feet of office space to the historic complex. I twice asked Speaker Quinn just how she saw the proposal making sense on zoning basics of use, bulk or environmental impact. She would only say that she hadn’t completed her review, but then still had no answer when we met six days later, just before the City Council’s land-use committee voted to support the proposal, surely with Quinn’s endorsement. Only Speaker Quinn could have stopped the project, but she advanced it in the face of overwhelming community resistance and without being able to say how it was good zoning.

If Speaker Quinn is already beholden to real estate interests in her expected run for mayor next year, she promises to bring to that office a fourth term of the Bloomberg administration’s worst feature; a pro-development, anti-oversight bias. In this New York, real estate runs politics and deals trump zoning. In a New York Times article on the Council’s Chelsea Market vote, David Chen wrote that in remaining “conspicuously quiet about the issue” and failing even to attend a public hearing on it, Quinn “left little doubt . . . that she had been the driving force behind the deal.” It’s pretty official when the Times calls it a deal. Read the rest of this entry »

Buying Michael Bolla’s Chelsea Mansion for Dummies

October 19th, 2012 by admin

A Daily News article on Michael Bolla’s restoration of 436 West 20th Street said “the house was raised 8 inches to become more level.” It appears to be tied to the house next door by a shared party wall. If Bolla raised his house without considering this, it might explain his house’s cracked and sloping façade.  


436 West 20th Street, the 1835 Chelsea row house that real estate broker Michael Bolla “restored” and marketed as Chelsea Mansion is for sale. When ArchiTakes first reported on the project’s violations, Bolla swore to a judge that he’d been defamed and trumpeted legal action aimed at me in an obliging press. The press failed to report that he never sued.

ArchiTakes finds Bolla’s row house still has issues at the Department of Buildings that any potential buyer should know about. Drawings have been filed to answer the Department’s objections from an April 7, 2010, audit, but construction hasn’t been modified to match these drawings. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the City Building Google a High Line Skybox?

July 5th, 2012 by admin

Shown in gold at top are Jamestown Properties’ proposed additions to Chelsea Market: 90,000 square feet at Ninth Avenue and 240,000 square feet at Tenth Avenue above the High Line, which is shown in green. Below is what Jamestown’s proposal might look like, give or take a floor, if it were really about needed office space and not about raiding the High Line’s light, air and sky views. Call it Scheme B. Either option would require a zoning change to increase Chelsea Market’s floor area by 330,000 square feet, but Jamestown’s would need a zoning change that would perversely allow construction within the footprint of a public park. City approval of Jamestown’s proposal is nonetheless thought to be a done deal. Read the rest of this entry »

High Noon at Chelsea Market

March 20th, 2012 by admin


The west end of Chelsea Market’s concourse incorporates the historic Nabisco complex’s train shed. About eighty feet of its distinctive clerestory window strip would be blocked by courtyard infill from Jamestown Properties’ proposed addition of a third of a million square feet of office space above it and the High Line. Jamestown’s proposal requires a zoning change that would only hurt Chelsea Market, the High Line and the community. The proposal is slated for city certification on March 26th. While this would technically begin the city’s review process, experience says certification would all but guarantee an addition to Chelsea Market, almost certainly including the cash-cow-in-the-sky office addition above the High Line that’s driving everything. By the time a project is certified, back-room handshakes have typically secured its ultimate approval. The subsequent “review process” merely affords limited opportunities for damage control and concession-seeking by the community.

Read the rest of this entry »

Jamestown’s Shady Plan for Chelsea Market

November 22nd, 2011 by admin

Last Sunday’s sunshine made the High Line’s “Tenth Avenue Square” a pleasant place to relax, even in late November. The popular grandstand feature would be cast into shadow at the hour this photo was taken if Jamestown Properties builds its planned office tower over Chelsea Market. The effect would be particularly damaging to a park highlight meant for lingering rather than strolling. Read the rest of this entry »

Last Call for Jaume Plensa’s “Echo”

August 28th, 2011 by admin

Echo, a belief-defying work by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa (JOW’-meh PLEHN’-sah) remains on view for only two more weeks, through September 11th. Like Plensa’s own Crown Fountain and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (aka The Bean), both in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Echo is both art and crowd-pleasing phenomenon. Sadly, unlike those works, Echo is not a permanent installation. If you’re a sympathetic ArchiTakes reader with adequate funds, please buy Echo and donate her to the City. If you haven’t seen this sculpture yet, and even if you don’t have the purchase price, do make it to Madison Square Park and take in this wonder before it vanishes back into whatever dimension it came from. Echo isn’t Plensa’s first giant, elongated female head, but it’s hard to believe she wasn’t conceived specifically for the park, with its trees, which she surreally dwarfs, and surrounding skyscrapers, whose vertical attenuation she echos. The sculpture is part of Mad. Sq. Art’s rotating exhibit series. Its accompanying plaque reads: “Inspired by the myth of the Greek nymph Echo, Plensa’s sculpture depicts the artist’s nine-year old neighbor in Barcelona, lost in a state of thoughts and dreams. Standing 44-feet tall at the center of Madison Square Park’s expansive Oval Lawn, Echo’s towering stature and white marble-dusted surface harmoniously reflect the historic limestone buildings that surround the park. Both monumental in size and inviting in subject, the peaceful visage of Echo creates a tranquil and introspective atmosphere amid the cacophony of central Manhattan.” Read the rest of this entry »

Midtown Undone

July 20th, 2011 by admin

Photographed last week, Midtown Plaza’s piecemeal demolition brings the look of a ship breaking yard to the skyline of Rochester, New York. The image may be bracing to those who remember the project’s promise of urban renewal when it was completed in 1962, to the design of urban planner Victor Gruen. According to the Wikipedia entry on Midtown, “Gruen was at the height of his influence when Midtown was completed and the project attracted international attention, including a nationally televised feature report on NBC-TV’s Huntley-Brinkley newscast the night of its opening in April 1962. City officials and planners from around the globe came to see Gruen’s solution to the mid-century urban crisis. Midtown won several design awards.”

A Jewish refugee from Nazi occupied Vienna, Gruen said he arrived in America with “an architectural degree, eight dollars, and no English.” He went from designing Fifth Avenue boutiques to a role as one of America’s premier urban planners. Melding his insights into consumer psychology with a conviction that retail spaces could create communities, Gruen invented the shopping mall. He strove to bring the urbanity of his native Vienna and Europe to America, claiming the Milan Galleria was his model for the mall. In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker that “Victor Gruen may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century” for his creation of the pervasive archetype. Gruen’s impact continues to be registered. Gladwell’s appraisal followed on the publication of Jeffrey Hardwick’s 2004 book, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. A decade ago, the media theorist and concept-coiner Douglas Rushkoff began popularizing the Gruen Transfer, also known as the Gruen Effect, by which shoppers are intentionally disoriented and distracted by the retail environment, so they’ll lose focus and succumb to impulse buying. Since 2008, The Gruen Transfer has been the title of an Australian TV series on advertising. In 2009, Anette Baldauf and Katharina Weingartner released the documentary, The Gruen Effect: Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall.

Read the rest of this entry »

Losing Ground at Chelsea Square

June 20th, 2011 by admin


Architect Charles C. Haight modeled the General Theological Seminary’s bell tower on Magdalen College’s, Oxford. This view of it from Tenth Avenue and 20th Street would be blocked by Beyer Blinder Belle’s proposed addition to the Seminary’s 1836 West Building. The Seminary’s mid-block grounds were designed to complement set-back garden fronts and distinguished row houses across 20th Street. Together they make one of New York’s best blocks and form the heart of the Chelsea Historic District. The addition will go before a public hearing of the Landmarks Preservation Commission at 11 AM tomorrow, June 21st.

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What New Zoning Could Mean for Chelsea Market

May 31st, 2011 by admin

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has denied a recent community request to add the Chelsea Market block to the existing Gansevoort Market Historic District. In a May 19th response to the Request for Evaluation, the Commission’s Director of Research wrote that “the properties do not appear to meet the criteria for designation . . . in part due to the fact that this block does not have a strong connection to the existing Gansevoort Market Historic District, either geographically or historically.”

This was a second attempt to have the block included in the City designated historic district. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation had earlier gotten the complex listed as part of the Gansevoort Market Historic District recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, but wasn’t able to convince the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to include it in its own smaller version of the district that the City designated in 2003. The distinction between City versus State and National designation is critical. Lacking City protection, Chelsea Market could be legally demolished by a private owner despite its State and National Register status, which only regulates publicly sponsored alterations. The website of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation states: “There are no restrictions placed on private owners of registered properties. Private property owners may sell, alter or dispose of their property as they wish.” Read the rest of this entry »

Saving Chelsea Market

March 22nd, 2011 by admin

David Burns of STUDIOS Architecture presented his firm’s vision of an expanded Chelsea Market, above, to a meeting of Community Board 4 last night, attended by residents wearing “Save Chelsea Market” buttons. He promptly heard one viewer’s verdict of “ugly building” endorsed by a peal of applause. The view above looks northeast from the West Side Highway. The design tries to break down its oppressive mass by collage effects which could conceivably be said to take inspiration from the accretive vocabulary of the Chelsea Market complex, although Burns didn’t seem to have the heart to even bother trying this pitch. As for fitting in, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. Chelsea Market is part of the Gansevoort Market Historic District that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but this insures State Historic Preservation Office oversight only for public development.  Somehow, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which would oversee private alterations such as those now proposed, neglected to include the Market in its version of the District. Read the rest of this entry »

Where is Michael Bolla’s Lawsuit?

March 1st, 2011 by admin

The doors of developer and real estate broker Michael Bolla’s 1835 rowhouse at 436 West 20th Street remain plastered with building notices over a year after a Daily News puff piece proclaimed it “one of the most perfectly restored homes in Manhattan.” On February 10, the Department of Buildings’ website indicated that the project was issued a Notice to Revoke its renovation permit.

In the year since this website began documenting his project’s problems, Bolla has succeeded in retaining new construction built without first obtaining required approvals, while pursuing a campaign of harassment and legal threat against ArchiTakes and of public disinformation in the press.

ArchiTakes’ experience highlights the risk run by legitimate neighborhood watchdogs: deep-pocketed plaintiffs can brandish groundless threats of lawsuits against them, aiming to buy silence through intimidation and the imposition of legal costs. Such plaintiffs run a risk of their own—that their targets will call their bluff and expose them for the bullies they are by publicly taunting them for failing to follow through on bogus lawsuits they have no hope or expectation of winning. Read the rest of this entry »