New plans still say “teardown” for Chelsea’s oldest house

June 10th, 2016 by admin

In an April 19 public hearing, the Landmarks Preservation Commission asked 404 West 20th Street’s new owner Ajoy Kapoor to return with a more appropriate proposal for altering it. Just released, the revised proposal will go before a public meeting of the Commission on Tuesday. The new design takes a little off the top and still appears to require virtual demolition of all but the façade of the house, the oldest in the Chelsea Historic District. Excerpted from the updated presentation by Kapoor’s architect William Suk and aligned for comparison are, left-to-right, the section of the existing house, the earlier proposal and the current proposal. The new building would still be well over twice the actual area of the approximately 4,000 square foot existing house, thanks in large part to a huge new basement excavation which would in itself make retention of the existing house difficult. In ArchiTakes’ opinion, both the form and substance of the existing house are lost in its proposed replacement.

A plaque long mounted to the front of 404 West 20th Street is missing since the house was bought last year by Kapoor. The plaque is thought to have been installed shortly after the 1970 landmark designation of the Chelsea Historic District in which the house stands. The building’s historic distinction and rare surviving wood frame complicate Kapoor’s plans, which depend heavily on Suk’s assurances to the Commission that the house is structurally deficient. At the April 19th hearing and in Suk’s presentation materials, these weren’t backed up with an independent engineer’s report, and his claims mainly pointed to the kind of construction technology and deformation normally found in old frame houses. His broad statement that “this whole house is falling apart” was not questioned by the commissioners. “I wouldn’t put a kid to bed in that house,” one commissioner said. “It’s patently unsafe not to mention the building is clearly falling apart.” Another commissioner didn’t call the house a threat to children but dishearteningly seemed to take condemnation as a foregone conclusion and spoke of a possible solution that would “give some deference at least to that original structure and record some memory of it as best can be done.” Why wouldn’t the Landmarks Preservation Commission just preserve the landmark that’s standing there? Many experts might say that in leaning only two inches to one side after 186 years it exhibits stability rather than the instability Suk makes of it. Shouldn’t the spatial ambition of Kapoor’s proposal inspire a little more scrutiny of his suggestions that preserving the existing house is a lost cause?

404′s existing (top) and proposed (bottom) main floor plans from William Suk’s latest presentation are aligned for comparison above. They continue to make obvious the disappearance of the old house save for its facade. The historic side alley seen just above the existing plan is subsumed in the much larger proposal, which also expands into the rear yard. Despite this apparent removal of the existing house, the project was described on the calendar of the Commission’s website as an application “to construct additions and excavate the rear yard,” and introduced as such in the public hearing. Although Community Board 4′s advisory letter to the Commission and several public speakers in the public hearing criticized the house’s proposed virtual replacement, Chair Srinavasan asked Kapoor’s counsel, Valerie Campbell, “How much of the building will be retained?” The Chair did not challenge Campbell’s answer that, “in trying to stabilize the building and to bring it up to code, there is a significant amount of work that has to be done to the building.” Campbell otherwise spoke in the hearing of measures needed to ensure the house’s “preservation” or “longevity.” She is described on the website of her firm, Kramer Levin, as a former General Counsel of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

In a 1965 photo, 404′s brick front is temporarily painted, while sunlight picks out its contrasting wood clapboard siding. A tiny alley exposes this evidence of the house’s frame construction, along with its historic pitched roof. A young Lesley Doyel stands in front. Her family bought the house that year after renting an apartment in it since 1952. Ms. Doyel is a longtime community activist and founder of the advocacy group, Save Chelsea. She and her husband Nick Fritsch sold the house to Ajoy Kapoor last year, having reason to be confident that its location in the Chelsea Historic District assured its preservation. According to the website of the Landmarks Preservation Commission: “If your building is in a historic district, it’s regulated the same way as an individual landmark.”

404′s wood siding has been a staple of Chelsea walking tours for decades. “I remember being shown the side of that house in an architecture class way back in my NYU days,” said Wendy Solem, a neighbor who called the house’s possible fate “truly heartbreaking.” Joyce Gold, who runs Joyce Gold History Tours of New York, said she has been leading groups to the house for 35 years and that it lets her “raise the subject of when wood could be used, and when it couldn’t.” In response to major fires, construction of wood houses was progressively banned in zones extending northward as the city grew. By 1849 the ban reached 32nd Street. Surviving wood-frame houses such as this one are very rare in Manhattan, but this only scratches the surface of 404′s significance to those who live in and visit the city and have an interest in exploring its roots.

Images from the latest submission compare the existing alley (left) with its still-proposed infill (right), now with its recessed face in wood siding. The alley would be commemorated with a bizarre and inexplicable shallow clapboard niche imitative of the existing historic side wall. The historic side wall itself would be lost along with views of the house’s period pitched roof. Current zoning doesn’t allow creation of side yards less than eight feet wide, but pre-existing ones like 404′s two-foot seven-inch alley are grandfathered. The alley can legally remain provided no addition to the house is built within eight feet of its side property line. Filling in the alley would eliminate this restriction on additions, while preserving it would still allow a substantial rear extension and preserve the visibility of the house’s pitched roof seen through the alley, not to mention views of its historic wood siding. At one point in the public hearing, the Commission mistook the width of the building lot for twenty rather than twenty-five feet, and the width of the allowed addition zone — if the alley were retained — for twelve rather than seventeen feet. This appeared to generate sympathy for Kapoor’s proposal to fill in the side yard. The Chair and commissioners were not corrected by William Suk, or Kapoor’s counsel, Valerie Campbell.

The Commission didn’t voice recognition of the significance of the narrow alleyway itself. Chair Srinavasan dismissed it as a “quirk,” saying “I can’t get all romantic about that side yard” and stating that she could “support” filling it in. Yet romance has little to do with it. Research uncovers plenty of justification for preserving it as a once-pervasive but now unique feature of the Chelsea Historic District.

Wood-frame buildings are colored yellow, brick buildings pink and commercial ones green on Plate 73, featuring Chelsea, of the 1854 Perris Map of New York. This insurance atlas also used a system of dots and symbols to convey a structure’s vulnerability and allow fire insurance companies to set rates without visiting buildings. 404 West 20th Street is seen just below the north arrow that’s to the right of the original twin buildings of the largely-open General Theological Seminary block.

Plate 73 shows scores of yellow-coded frame houses in Chelsea with narrow side yards providing street access to back buildings. Many are visible in this detail of West 21st and 22nd Streets west of Eighth Avenue. These were often modest homes of self-employed tradesmen, which would in time give way to brick rowhouses filling the width of their lots. Sometimes the back buildings came first and were left accessible to the street by passages running next to or through later houses built at the street line. A few of the lots visible above still have only “back” buildings. The map is a snapshot of Chelsea in a moment of transition from village to city neighborhood. The prevalence of this arrangement was specific to Chelsea, as noted in Thomas Janvier’s 1894 city history, In Old New York, which describes “conspicuous features of what once was Chelsea Village”:

. . . even a few of the more modest remnants of that earlier period, the little wooden houses wherein dwelt folk of a humbler sort, still may be seen here and there: standing back shyly from the street in deep yards and having somewhat the abashed look of aged rustics confronted suddenly with city ways. But many more of these timber-toed veterans–true Chelsea pensioners–lie hidden away in the centres of the blocks, and may be found only by burrowing through alleyways beneath the outer line of prim brick houses of a modern time. Notably, on both sides of Twentieth Street, between the Seventh and Eighth avenues, these inner rows of houses may be found; and west of Eighth Avenue on the northern side of the way. But one may rest assured that wherever, in any of the blocks hereabouts, an alleyway opens there will be found an old wooden house or a whole row of old wooden houses.”

404 West 20th Street’s narrow alley is the sole survivor in the Chelsea Historic District, one of only four left in all of Chelsea, and the only one adjoining a wood frame house.

Just two side alleys, each three feet wide, remain on the West 20th Street block Janvier highlighted. #207 (left) has been altered from its traditional rowhouse appearance. A sign on its alley gate reads “207R” for a rear building called a “walk-up apartment” in city records. A handful of Chelsea back buildings live on as residences. Diagonally across the street, #224 (right) recalls the look of 404 West 20th Street minus its distinctive clapboard side wall.

On the same block, an example of Janvier’s “whole row” of back buildings survives behind the Chelsea International Hostel, which occupies historic rowhouses #245 through #259. Their back yards form a long rear court opening to the street through a covered passage under #251. The low row of back buildings has been adapted as hostel units.

248 West 22nd Street rounds out Chelsea’s four surviving side alleys. The rowhouse’s original entrance has been converted to a first floor window and its 3′-7″ side yard to an open-air building entry and stair.

Janvier’s description of antique back buildings as “timber-toed veterans–true Chelsea pensioners” is a sly reference to the wooden legs of military casualties and the man who gave the neighborhood its name, retired British Captain Thomas Clarke. A veteran of the French and Indian War, Clarke bought farmland in 1750 for an estate he wryly named after London’s Royal Hospital Chelsea, which still operates as a retirement and nursing home for British soldiers known as Chelsea Pensioners. It was like calling his last home “the VA hospital.” Clarke’s estate house was located on what became the block south of today’s London Terrace apartment complex. After it burned, his widow replaced it with the one pictured above in Janvier’s book, which would become the home of his grandson, the ancient language professor, slave owner, real estate developer and ” ‘Twas the night before Christmas” poet, Clement Clarke Moore. When northward encroachment of the Manhattan street grid diced Moore’s inherited property into city blocks, he subdivided them into building lots for sale.

Moore donated a full block to the Episcopal Church for use as a seminary. Its campus would double as a town square, giving the community a focus and raising real estate values around it in the manner of contemporary neighborhood greens like Washington Square and Gramercy Park.  The Seminary block’s longtime name, “Chelsea Square,” reflects this aim. The large building near the center of the map detail above is the Seminary’s long-demolished 1827 East Building, one of America’s first Gothic Revival buildings. Its twin, the 1836 West Building to its left, still stands, converted to luxury condos in Chelsea’s post-High Line hyper-gentrification. The East and West Buildings fronted on West 20th Street, turning their impressive public faces south to exploit the play of sun and shadow. 404 West 20th Street — the farthest-right house fronting on West 20th Street, colored yellow for its frame construction — was built in 1829-30. Its front garden, side alley and a back building are visible. The map shows the front garden space Moore planned in front of the 20th Street lots to complement the leafy campus across the street. This zone ends in a quarter-circle just right of 404. Moore sold the lots west of 404 to the developer Don Alonzo Cushman, who in 1840 completed what is now considered one of the city’s two best surviving rows of Greek Revival houses, matching the other one on Washington Square and validating Moore’s town-square planning strategy. Cushman’s daughter would later build the Donac apartment building, named for him, on the other side of 404 across its alleyway.

404′s meeting of clapboard and brick shows the direct involvement of Clement Clarke Moore. According to the Landmarks Commission’s 1970 Chelsea Historic District Designation Report:

No. 404, the oldest house in the Chelsea Historic District, was built in 1829-30 for Hugh Walker on land leased from Clement Clarke Moore for forty dollars per year. The lease stated that if, during the first seven years, a good and substantial house was erected, being two stories or more, constructed of brick or stone, or having a brick or stone front, the lessor would pay the full value of the house at the end of the lease. . . . The original clapboard of one sidewall is still visible on the east side of the house.

Moore might have settled for less than an all-brick or stone building in resignation to the lot’s still-open surroundings at the northern city outskirts, land appealing to “folk of a humbler sort,” to get the ball rolling on Chelsea’s development. In stipulating a brick or stone face, this starter house would at least contribute to the dignity and property value he hoped to see at the centerpiece block of his new community. It’s unclear whether his tenant Hugh Walker lived in or used a back building before building the brick-faced house for which Moore reimbursed him, on the model Janvier describes. 404′s brick face may indeed have helped convince Cushman to develop his impressive row next door a few years later. The more humble character displayed behind its brick face makes it the indispensable first page of Chelsea’s  domestic history.

The Donac was completed in 1898 to the design of the mansion architect C.P.H. Gilbert. Its form respects the quarter-circle setback Clement Clarke Moore conceived to ease into the adjoining front garden setback. The lowered bay within the Donac’s curve creates the impression that the building is stepping down to the height of its humble neighbor in the same graceful gesture. This masterstroke of suggestion is greatly helped by the alley’s cushion of breathing space between them. Kapoor’s proposed alley infill would bring 404 into formal collision with the Donac.

Moore later took on a property manager, James N. Wells, the carpenter who built St. Luke’s Church in Greenwich Village. Wells moved into the brick house at Ninth Avenue and 21st Street (above) when it was newly-built in 1833. According to a  New York Times article by Christopher Gray, Wells

. . . developed the rather sophisticated restrictions that Moore imposed on his lots when private house construction began in earnest in the mid-1830′s. These covenants not only included prohibitions against stables and rear buildings, but also required tree planting. Clearly Moore and Wells were taking pains to create a first-class residential district.

Chelsea’s early frame houses, alleys and back buildings would indeed fade away as the village became Moore’s intended city neighborhood of genteel brick rowhouses, before they were subdivided into apartments for waterfront workers, before they declined in the era of urban flight, before they were rediscovered largely by gay pioneers, before the influx of a few hundred galleries, and before the High Line made it the real-estate jackpot now threatening the layered history and resonance that make it uniquely and richly Chelsea.

Update: In a July 26, 2016, public meeting, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a revised proposal which will still replace 404 West 20th Street with a much larger house, fill in its side yard and preserve only its street façade. Commissioner Michael Devonshire alone spoke and voted against the proposal, for “obliterating” the historic house.

More posts on this block of Chelsea:

Buying Michael Bolla’s Chelsea Mansion for Dummies

Losing Ground at Chelsea Square

The Seminary Block of West 20th Street

Detroit’s Grand Central: Michigan Central Station

May 27th, 2015 by admin

In its much-photographed desolation, Detroit’s Michigan Central Station could be called America’s Ruin, while New York’s restored Grand Central Terminal more than ever lives up to its title as America’s Piazza San Marco.

Grand Central was one of New York’s first buildings to be targeted for landmark designation, sparing it from demolition to become one of the nation’s most celebrated urban icons and the world’s sixth-ranking tourist attraction. Michigan Central’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places protects it only from federally-funded demolition. It has survived a 2009 appeal by Detroit’s mayor for federal stimulus funds to pay for its removal and a City Council resolution that year calling on the Station’s owner to demolish it with his own money. Michigan Central lacks the landmark designation that would give it the protection it deserves, including oversight of alterations or restoration. Political realities often drive preservation decisions and may explain how the Station remains unprotected.

The case for Michigan Central’s landmark status seems obvious: America’s preservation movement was born of the 1963 demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and proven in a battle for the preservation of Grand Central Terminal, Beaux-Arts train stations in the mold of Michigan Central.

Just how closely Michigan Central is related to Grand Central hasn’t received due attention; it’s often observed that they were designed by the same architects, but this only scratches the surface of their bond. The designers of both stations were a contentious team of two firms, Reed & Stem of St. Paul and Warren & Wetmore of New York. They were forced together by the New York Central Railroad, owner of the Michigan Central Railroad, in a shotgun-marriage of a partnership called the Associated Architects of Grand Central Terminal, the name by which they also designed Michigan Central. The stations were their only large-scale collaborations and were designed almost at once for effectively the same client.

Renderings of Michigan Central Station with its defining tower (left) and Grand Central Terminal with its unbuilt one (right) show how similar they were in concept. Their trios of monumental arches, each flanked by paired columns and alternating with smaller openings, reveal a more specific level of similarity. Both opened in 1913; Grand Central in February and Michigan Central in December. Michigan Central’s distinctive tower made it the world’s tallest train station, and owes to the idea of one conceived for Grand Central. In both renderings, America’s signature architectural innovation – the skyscraper – grows from a train station modeled on an ancient Roman bath. This duality reflects an underlying battle for the soul of American architecture then led by two Chicago architects: Louis Sullivan, “father of the skyscraper” and “prophet of modernism,” and Daniel Burnham, the “father of the City Beautiful” who made classicism the era’s national style. Beyond their juxtaposition of skyscraper and Roman bath, the stations are permeated by a mix of the historic and futuristic, giving them unique architectural depth.

The shock of Michigan Central’s abandoned grandeur distracts from its oddly conjoined building types and isolation from other large buildings. Grand Central is only the most immediate key to making sense of Detroit’s Station. Its full explanation leads from ancient Rome through Paris and Chicago to New York at its most futuristic. Read the rest of this entry »

Detroit: City of the Future

August 14th, 2014 by admin

Henry Ford poses in the first car he made. In his 1922 autobiography, he wrote: “Industry will decentralize. There is no city that would be rebuilt as it is, were it destroyed – which fact is in itself a confession of our real estimate of cities. . . . The modern city has been prodigal, it is today bankrupt, and tomorrow it will cease to be.” At the time, Ford was building his vast River Rouge plant miles outside Detroit. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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