The Seamy Side of 436 West 20th Street
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.
Henry Papprill’s1849 view of “New York from the Steeple of St. Paul’s Church,” shows the city roofscape of 436 West 20th Street’s era, still dominated by pitched gable roofs. Papprill’s engraving shows how far the roof of Bolla’s building has been changed from the character of its time. It also anticipates the views of rooftops the public would have when highrises succeeded churches as the City’s tallest buildings. The photo at the top of this post was taken from within the Chelsea Historic District and shows conditions visible from hundreds of windows and many terraces, including those of the huge London Terrace apartment complex and new towers rising along the High Line.
Matthew Dripps’ “Map of the City of New York Extending Northward to Fiftieth Street” depicts the city of 1850 and is the earliest map to distinguish 19th-century New York’s individual buildings. This detail shows the full-block site of the General Theological Seminary in green and the block to its south, across 20th Street. These blocks were originally the southwest corner of the estate of Clement Clarke Moore, who donated the land for the Seminary, where he would later teach Greek and Hebrew. Moore resisted the northward extension of the street grid through his open land, but afterward sold his estate off in building lots, participating in their development. Dripps’ map shows the two original matching Seminary buildings, at left the 1835-36 West Building, and at right the 1825-27 East Building, which was later razed. The West building survives as the Seminary’s oldest structure. As in 1836, it still looks straight across 20th Street at #436, seen on the map below the “Th” in “Theological.” The street was new and sparsely occupied when #436 was built in 1835. It preceded by five years the fine row of Greek Revival houses built down the block to the east by Moore’s friend, the developer Don Alonzo Cushman. These houses are the Chelsea Historic District’s showpiece and they highlight the special attention this block of 20th Street received as a forecourt to Moore’s prized Seminary. According to a New York Times “Streetscapes” piece by Christopher Gray, Cushman “worked with Moore to build up the neighborhood” and the two “agreed in 1834 to a 10-foot setback” along the south side of 20th Street. This setback, visible on Dripps’ map, was to contain gardens that would beautify the street, add real estate value, and enhance the public zone addressed by the seminary. The gardens contribute to the block’s sense of being a place apart from the usual urban street grid that Moore deplored. The special quality of this block is still immediately felt. Moore’s involvement in the neighborhood’s emerging character extended further; the Guide to New York City Landmarks states that “Moore had the area divided into building lots with restrictions placed on the design and quality of new housong.” The Landmarks Preservation Commission recognized Moore’s results when it designated the first Chelsea Historic District in 1970 and effectively became his executor, requiring building owners to obtain its approval for exterior alterations.
Bolla’s anachronistic rooftop is visible from the grounds of the General Theological Seminary and from the front steps of its centerpiece chapel. The Seminary’s grounds are open to the public from 10AM to 3PM, Monday through Saturday.
As seen in this photo, 436 West 20th Street’s new parapet wall appears little justified by waterproofing. Roof flashing rises only a small way up its height, which is clearly set by the new steel beam it supports, just rear of the parapet peak.
The historic roofline of 436 West 20th Street is shown above as it looked a few years ago, before Michael Bolla bought the house from longtime owner, Frances Gaar. Even tarred over, its simple form had the gravitas of authentic history. According to an October 2009 New York Times article, “Just before she died last year at 89, Ms. Gaar sold the house to developers who promised her they would preserve it.” The Times piece states that ”Plans to add a rooftop extension, topped by a new garden, are pending before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.” This is followed by a November 2009 report on the building in the Real Estate Weekly that stated that “a sixth floor is being added that will house a 500 square foot office and have a rooftop garden with spectacular views of the Hudson River.” Bolla was already hyping an expanded penthouse he’d eventually advertise at a rent of $37,500 per month. The Landmarks Commission limited his rooftop extension to a rear shed dormer in a permit that otherwise took pains to emphasize preservation of the building’s main gable roof. Its approval of alterations was qualified by the understanding “that the alterations at the roof will occur at the rear of the building, and will not be visible; that the alteration to the rear of the roof will not encompass the entire width of the roof; that the visible portion of the gable roof, and the historic roof pitch will be maintained at all sides, thereby maintaining the historic profile of the roofline, that the visible portion of the gable roof, which is a character-defining feature of the building, will retain its historic profile when viewed from the street.”
Contradicting the Landmarks Commission’s decision that his roofline should be maintained, Bolla went on to raise it by several feet and change it from a gable to a gambrel shape, as shown under construction in February, above. By all appearances he knowingly defied the Commission. Under normal circumstances, it’s likely no one would have noticed his violations. After all, what were the odds his work would be right outside the window of a member of the Historic Districts Council?
A February photo, at top, shows the historic roofline of the brick gable wall still intact at left, and in the process of being extended upward by about 15 brick courses - 40 inches or so – at right. After ArchiTakes reported on this in March, Bolla lowered this extension by removing about 9 of the 15 newly installed brick courses, as shown in the lower photo. The gable wall remains about 16 inches higher than its historic profile of 175 years, still legible in darker-looking brick, and measurable relative to the steel plate that appears at the bottom of each photo. This added section of wall supports the steel beam, visible at right in the lower photo, and conceals it from the street. Unfortunately, it doesn’t conceal the beam from anywhere else. The beam’s purpose is unknown. If it’s for structural stabilization, there’s no apparent reason it shouldn’t be under the roof. Unless, perhaps, it would detract from the interior space Bolla hopes to rent at such a premium. Indoors, nothing’s too good for Bolla’s “celebrity dorm” renters. The rest of us are welcome to look at the seamy side.
Work on Bolla’s rooftop extravaganza is shown in this May 6th photo. The full extent of added brick at the top of the peaked gable wall is legible in its lighter mortar. This wall has become peppered with what appear to be anchor plates for interior tie-rods. The windows in this wall are also new, approved by the Landmarks Commission as “new wd [wood] windows to match existing 3rd floor front facade.” In typical fashion, the Commission was clearly concerned primarily that the new windows should be appropriately similar to the building’s historic ones. Alterations permitted by the Commission aren’t legal by definition, but must be subsequently approved by the Department of Buildings, which oversees code compliance. Located on a property line between two building lots, the Landmarks-approved wood windows might have been headed for a roadblock at the Department of Buildings, in the code’s requirement that lot-line windows must be “protected openings,” or windows with fire-resistance ratings. The wood-frame windows prescribed by the Landmarks Commission wouldn’t provide such ratings. Irregularities in their application documents would strongly suggest that Bolla and his architect, Gary Silver, tried to slip these windows past the Department of Buildings by burying plans for them in an amendment to an interior renovation filing, and with no indication that they were part of the project’s new construction. Under the Building Department’s Professional Certification program, Silver certified the legality of his filed documents in place of their review by a Department plan examiner. The fire safety aspect of this raises the matter well above that of a procedural technicality. The windows will certainly help Bolla get higher rent for his penthouse, though.
The Landmarks Commission issued Bolla this violation and one other on March 22nd, four days after ArchiTakes posted photos of his alterations to the roof of 436 West 20th Street and pointed out that the raised gable wall and the size of the rear dormer were out of compliance with his permit from the Commission. In a June 8th Public Meeting of the Landmarks Commission, Bolla testified that the larger size of the dormer was necessary to structurally stabilize the house (just incidentally resulting in more rentable square footage). The raising of the gable isn’t cited in the meeting, a recording of which ArchiTakes obtained from the Commission. It’s unclear whether the commissioners are even aware that it’s still taller than its historic height. Bolla walked away with an amendment ”to legalize the construction of a rooftop addition in non-conformance with the Certificate of Appropriateness.” He didn’t say in the meeting why he hadn’t approached Landmarks for an amendment related to the structural issue before overbuilding the dormer, or what he had in mind when he first raised the gable wall by over three feet, none of which seems to have hurt his credibility with the commissioners. The lesson is clear: build whatever you want, and even if you get caught, you’ll still end up with more than you would have by obeying the law. In the June meeting, Bolla personally explained to the commissioners, and didn’t deny, that he had overbuilt the roof – the same putative violation pointed out by ArchiTakes in its original post on his project. The next week, he had his attorney Jason Gabbard file a statement in support of his pre-litigation petition in New York Supreme Court affirming to the Court “under penalty of perjury” that all the statements in the post, including those revealing this violation, were “false and defamatory.”
The Department of Buildings initiated an audit of Bolla’s job filing three weeks after ArchiTakes first reported on his project. On April 7th, the Department issued Bolla this 13-item objection list citing his job filing’s failure of its audit. The Department’s objection #12, “sprinklers for lot line windows,” suggests that Bolla may be allowed to keep his new gable wall windows if he installs adjacent sprinklers. In our view, this would be a huge reward to him for creating these windows without properly applying for them, and would make a fool of any applicant who follows the rules.
In a similar case to Bolla’s, an illegal extra story was added a few years ago to 12 West 68th Street – the red brick building at left in the photo above – which stands within the Upper West Side Historic District. Built without approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, it was brought to light by a concerned neighbor. Community groups prevailed in fighting the owner’s efforts to have the Landmarks Commission legalize the addition, and insisted on its removal. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Arlene Simon, president of the preservation group Landmark West! argued that “anything less would have set a precedent that an owner could build in defiance of landmark rules.” The case illustrates both the importance of community involvement and a strategy of asking forgiveness rather than permission, with the weight of completed construction behind the request.
Bolla and Gabbard have succeeded in repeatedly shutting down ArchiTakes with dire threats of legal action against successive web hosts. It’s a tactic that has worked beautifully with commercial web hosts who will take down any content deemed controversial, apparently without even reading it. ArchiTakes is now hosted by Project DoD, a highly recommended free hosting service (with a suggested contribution) that promises not to be intimidated by free-speech-hating bullies and totalitarian fat cats. Project DoD is a nightmare for Jason Gabbard types who’d like to see the internet reduced to a refrigerator door for pet pictures.
As reported in an August post, Bolla and Gabbard obtained a court-ordered release of identifying information from ArchiTakes’ first web host, claiming it was needed to file a defamation suit and collect damages. The information was handed over without contest by the web host, a Utah-based company that apparently decided sending lawyers to New York wasn’t worth their annual $4.95 privacy option fee. Rather than using this information to sue for damages, as represented to the officiating judge, Bolla and Gabbard used it to intimidate ArchiTakes’ next web host into another shutdown and to proclaim this minor action as a triumphant vindication in court. Under the headline “Ruling Sets Groundbreaking Legal Precedent in New York Real Estate Developer Michael Bolla’s Blogger Anonymity Case” (and on other websites, “Building owner wins case against blogger”) a recent online article makes this case. It appears above the byline of Robin Dolch, a vice president at Rubenstein Public Relations:
The outcome in real estate developer Michael Bolla’s case against a hosting company earlier this month has set a monumental legal precedent with the court’s recent ruling in Bolla’s favor. In March of 2010, an article was written on a blog, ArchiTakes, that falsely accused Bolla of infringing landmark laws and decimating historical framework in order to turn a profit at his 10,000-square-foot Federalist townhouse, located at 436 West 20th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. “The claims the ArchiTakes blogger makes on his site are one hundred percent inaccurate,” Bolla said. . . . Bolla’s work was performed entirely with the cooperation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and has since passed all inquiries by the DOB. . . . “Bolla is prepared to vigorously preserve and protect his stellar reputation” by filing suit against the blogger, notes Bolla’s attorney, Jason Gabbard of New York-based Gabbard & Kamal LLP.
It’s not even a Federalist townhouse, but who’s counting? If ArchiTakes’ reporting is false, why doesn’t Bolla just sue? He’s known where to serve papers for nearly two months now. Then again, if he and Gabbard are afraid to take their case to court, they have good reason. In court, the truth - to which they’re such absolute strangers - is an absolute defense.
More on 436 West 20th Street:
Buying Michael Bolla’s Chelsea Mansion for Dummies – October 19, 2012
Where is Michael Bolla’s Lawsuit? – March 1, 2011
Chelsea Mansion: The Art of Fiction – August 12, 2010
436 West 20th Street Rises Above the Law – March 18, 2010