CUNY Demolishes Historic Queens Building

The 1914 Loose-Wiles Sunshine Biscuit Company garage

The 1914 Loose-Wiles Sunshine Biscuit Company garage

The City University of New York has demolished a 1914 garage on its LaGuardia Community College campus that was part of the historic Loose-Wiles Sunshine Biscuit plant in Long Island City.  The building had been protected by its formal status as “eligible” for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places until the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) issued a Letter of Resolution allowing its demolition in January.  The ground on which the building stood will be paved for parking.  

The garage was built to house trucks for the adjacent main building of the Loose-Wiles Sunshine Biscuit Company, the world’s largest bakery from its completion in 1912 until 1955.  The bakery’s famous 1000 windows allowed for a daylit workplace and gave the Sunshine brand its name.  It is now part of LaGuardia’s Campus.

The garage’s design adopted the bakery’s giant arched windows and rusticated terra cotta skin, and was crowned by a monumental triangular pediment above its corner entrance.  In its 2006 designation report for Manhattan’s Claremont Theater, The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that chamfered corner entrances are unusual in New York City, “occasionally used by church and bank architects . . . as well as the handsome garage built for the Loose-Wiles Sunshine Biscuit Company (1913-1914) in Long Island City, Queens”.  The AIA Guide to New York City admired the Loose-Wiles buildings’ “Gutsy World War I architecture, some of it paying tribute to that of Otto Wagner”.

Early in the twentieth century, the Sunshine Biscuit buildings and their massive neighbors to the east along Thomson Avenue formed Degnon Terminal, a rail-served industrial corridor with access to shipping via Newtown Creek.  In the 1980′s several Terminal buildings were converted to showrooms for the International Design Center of New York, and later to offices for public agencies including New York City’s School Construction Authority and Department of Design and Construction.

Documents obtained from multiple sources provide details on the garage’s demolition, which was contracted by the Dormitory Authority of New York at CUNY’s request.  Section 14.09 of the New York State Historic Preservation Act requires state agencies like CUNY and DASNY to obtain SHPO permission before altering eligible buildings.  DASNY executed $3.9 million in demolition and site work contracts in the Fall of 2008, months before SHPO’s January 28, 2009, Letter of Resolution allowing the building’s destruction.

A 2000 inspection report estimated the cost of restoring the 63,000 square foot garage at $6.5 million and the cost of replacement at $7.9 million.  The $6.5 million restoration would have been comprehensive, bringing the building into code compliance, replacing its windows and all of its terra cotta skin, and resulting in a building that “can continue to function in its intended use for another 100 years and provide a valuable service to LaGuardia Community College”.  This 2000 report was updated in 2005 to say that “the overall condition of the building has not significantly changed in 5 years”, but that “the cost at this time will have mushroomed to $9 million given escalation and increased construction costs generally”.

DASNY’s letter proposing the building’s demolition to SHPO cites this $9 million restoration estimate and asserts CUNY’s mission “to provide higher education to those who may not have any other opportunity for college”.  It states that “repairing the Garage does not fulfill the mission of CUNY or LGCC” and concludes that demolition is “the only reasonable, prudent and cost effective alternative”.

Had CUNY nominated the garage for listing on the State and National Registers and been successful in getting it listed – a predictable outcome for eligible buildings – $600,000 in state grant money would have become available for its restoration.  Considering these funds and the $3.9 million cost of demolition and new surface parking, the difference between a fully restored garage and a paved lot amounts to $72 per square foot.  Even with further cost escalation since 2005, this would be a small fraction of the replacement cost for a building shell of such quality and potential for adaptive reuse.  These numbers hardly make a case for undue financial hardship on a university system with a 5-year construction budget in the billions.

Originally designed to accommodate the weight and maneuvering clearances of heavy trucks, the 2-story garage’s huge structural load capacity and spans of up to 61 feet could have served almost any use.  The upper floor in particular, with high ceilings, only nine interior columns, and a continuous perimeter of 37 giant window openings, would have adapted particularly well to classrooms, auditoriums or recreation space.  The building might also have enriched further development of the site in the manner of its terra cotta contemporaries, the Audubon Ballroom and the RKO 81st Street Theater.

Restoring a building so pre-loaded with the green architecture virtues of flexibility and natural light, and tapping its immense embodied energy would have been a real coup for the sustainability on which CUNY congratulates itself.  It would also have been the only responsible solution from a historic preservation standpoint.  What’s lost in historical authenticity and identity of place is beyond replacement by new construction of any cost.  When NYU outraged preservationists by demolishing Greenwich Village’s Poe House and most of the Provincetown Playhouse building, at least it was a matter of private versus public interest.  CUNY is a public university system with 21 campuses and nearly 300 buildings, many of them architecturally or historically significant.  How many of these will fall in the path of its mission?

Long span steel trusses were exposed by demolition in May

The garage's huge steel trusses, exposed by demolition in May

 

 

 

2 Responses to “CUNY Demolishes Historic Queens Building”

  1. Max Kim-Bee Says:

    The demolition of this fine, architecturally interesting industrial structure is sad and really a bit obscene especially in light of the long term artistic value it’s rehabilitation would have given CUNY and the city as a whole. CUNY cannot fall upon it’s mission statement to act so barbarically in destroying buildings with such merit – especially if it merely intends to pave over them!! What a bunch of complete morons!! What a terrible example the administrators set with their knuckle-headed sophistry. Few things are more sickening than this sheer vandalism made worse when executed by a state institution of higher learning. Culturally criminal – the individuals responsible should be brought up before a board of review. Alas that will not save this humble little architectural gem.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks for the significant research and exposure on this humble structure. It certainly demonstrates the political momentum that CUNY has, given it’s decision to encumber capital funds and approve DASNY to proceed prior to SHPO’s approval. Any other owner would certainly see such action as an extreme risk. Clearly CUNY carried no risk in proceeding early. I remain surprised at the lack of press or public interest in CUNY’s capital expenditures. Although the institution has shown excellent growth, its Chancellor doesn’t appear to answer directly to anyone. Bloomberg shows no interest, nor does Patterson. CUNY appears to encumber and spend its significant public dollars unchecked and unchallenged.

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