Archive for the ‘News’ Category

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

Friday, June 10th, 2016

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 presenation 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 named “Chelsea” after London’s Royal Hospital Chelsea, which still operates as a retirement and nursing home for British soldiers known as Chelsea Pensioners. Clarke’s joke on his old age gives the neighborhood its name. His 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

Saving the Seamen’s House YMCA

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

 

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

Friday, July 12th, 2013

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 1 – In Memory of Lebbeus Woods

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

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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The Chelsea Market Deal, brought to you by ULURP

Monday, November 5th, 2012

 

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. (more…)

Buying Michael Bolla’s Chelsea Mansion for Dummies

Friday, October 19th, 2012

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. (more…)

Is the City Building Google a High Line Skybox?

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

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. (more…)

High Noon at Chelsea Market

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

 

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

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

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. (more…)

Last Call for Jaume Plensa’s “Echo”

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

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.” (more…)

Midtown Undone

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

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

Monday, June 20th, 2011

 

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

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

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.” (more…)

Saving Chelsea Market

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

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. (more…)

Where is Michael Bolla’s Lawsuit?

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

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. (more…)

The Seamy Side of 436 West 20th Street

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

 

436 West 20th Street has recently added a prominent steel I-beam above its roof ridge and a large skylight on its north slope as shown in this photo taken on September 15th.  A visit that day to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings found no evidence of applications or approvals for these additions to the 1835 rowhouse, which falls within the Chelsea Historic District.  The Landmarks Commission’s Rowhouse Manual specifically states that a permit is required for construction of a skylight within a historic district (although it doesn’t address big red I-beams).  One end of the new beam is supported by the building’s west gable wall, at right in the photo above.  The top of this wall was historically lower and almost flush with the roof plane.  It now extends above the roof, creating a parapet.  The wall’s profile has further been changed by the introduction of a level section at the bottom of its front slope.  The house’s brick chimneys were rebuilt to their current, and likely original, height as approved by the Landmarks Commission, but then extended by several feet with prominent sheet-metal turbine ventilators.  Even the rearmost of these is visible from the street.  ArchiTakes first posted photographic evidence of unapproved construction at 436 West 20th Street in March.  Within weeks, the Landmarks Commission issued violations and the Department of Buildings audited and failed the building’s job filing.  The building’s owner and developer, realtor-to-the-stars Michael Bolla, responded with threats of legal action aimed at silencing ArchiTakes. (more…)