Saving the Seamen’s House YMCA

 

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 these 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.

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