Losing Ground at Chelsea Square

 

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.

  

Beyer Blinder Belle’s rendering of the proposed addition, at center above, shows it replacing part of the block’s distinctive open space with standard street line construction. In addition to the open space it would take up, the addition would block sunlight and views deeper into grounds behind it. It stands forward of the set-back, gray stone West Building, seen beyond. A smaller addition, proposed as office space for the Seminary, was approved for the same site by the Landmarks Commission in 2008. With declining enrolment, the Seminary no longer needs the addition, but is in the process of selling the West Building and the addition site to the Brodsky Organization for development as luxury condominiums. Approval of the addition can be passed on without regard for a change in ownership or function, allowing it to be sold as well.

  

The addition’s north elevation, facing away from the street, would be a decidedly non-contextual seven stories. (The full first floor is conveniently obscured in this drawing, which shows the ground plane forward of the building’s areaway.) Beyer Blinder Belle replicates Polshek Partnership’s formula for the new Chelsea Enclave condominium at the Ninth Avenue end of the Seminary block: one-story brownstone base, four brick stories, and two penthouse floors set back and clad in an alternate material so they don’t visually contradict the lower cornice line of the masonry bulk below. BBB even adopts Polshek’s glazed corners, creating the impression that Chelsea Enclave is colonizing the Seminary grounds. Polshek’s building was in a taller, avenue context, while BBB’s is surrounded by shorter buildings not just on the Seminary block but across 20th Street, which is lined with fine Greek Revival and Italianate row houses. Here, BBB doesn’t even bother adjusting the brick cornice line to its surroundings. The design appears to assume that the Landmarks Commission’s approval of Chelsea Enclave opened the door to matching construction elsewhere on the block. Relating to previous approvals for Chelsea Enclave and BBB’s own earlier approved West Building addition, the current design operates at a remove from its real context. What’s lost sight of is the appropriateness of any addition at all.

  

BBB’s already approved design for a five-story addition is shown at center in the top image. Below it is the currently proposed addition, its recessed seventh story camouflaged against background rooftops in light gray. The addition’s glass link to the historic gray stone of the West Building was originally meant as a new Seminary entrance and a connection between office functions on either side. It would now be a luxury condominium entrance. The new design has a slightly smaller footprint than its unbuilt predecessor, which may be used as a selling point to the Landmarks Commission. Shoe-horning a new owner and program into a building shell and image that hasn’t been built yet is absurd enough, but the real elephant in the room is that the earlier addition was approved to fill the vital space needs of an institution with centuries-deep roots in its site, while the current one would let rich people live in a park. The Seminary’s open space has been celebrated as a public amenity since its creation, and publicly protected as part of the Chelsea Historic District since 1970. Justification for its loss should be the top consideration. By rules it counts for nothing.

  

Singled out by the Chelsea Historic District’s 1970 Designation Report for its “picturesque medievalism,” the northwest corner of the Seminary grounds is a set-piece of architectural composition. Views of it from 20th Street are now largely obscured by ivy covered fences, serving the purposes of Seminary administrators who would sell these views from under the public. Street views would be permanently blocked by luxury condominiums, set up like cushy chairs on on the raised stage of the seminary grounds without regard for the house seats. Thomas Janvier’s In Old New York celebrated the view that would be diminished, as it was taking form in 1894: “Only one of the original edifices, the West Building, still is standing; and now the larger part of what was Chelsea Square is covered with great brick halls, and the brick chapel, erected within the past ten years. Even with all this growth of new buildings there still remains a wide extent of trimly kept lawns dotted with flower-beds and shaded by wide-branching trees; and there is no more delightful bit in all New York than the deeply recessed space in the south front, where the yellow-green lawn has for background the ivy-clad red brick walls . . .”

  

A detail of Matthew Dripps’ 1852 New York map shows the Seminary’s original East and West Buildings occupying Chelsea Square, created by Clement Clarke Moore from his apple orchard and donated to the Episcopal Church expressly for a Seminary in 1817. In the same stroke, Moore gave a value enhancing focus to the residential neighborhood he was developing from his estate as it was subdivided by the encroaching street grid. The grounds surrounding the Seminary’s two original buildings were spatially complemented by ten-foot front garden setbacks Moore instituted across 20th and 21st Streets from the Square. According to the Chelsea Historic District’s Designation Report, “The resulting effect was the adaptation to Chelsea of the residential square concept. In this instance, the Seminary block (Chelsea Square) acts as the square. The ten-foot setbacks on West 20th and 21st Streets simply protected and enhanced it. . . . Thus the first houses, which were built in a park-like setting, were either mansions or large town houses.” Like its contemporaries, Washington Square and Gramercy Park, Chelsea Square would attract high-end residential development, including 20th Street’s Cushman Row, seen just below and to the right of “Seminary” on the map. The Designation Report calls it the “outstanding feature” of the Chelsea Historic District and “one of the most splendid and best preserved rows of town houses in New York City” ranking “with the row at the northeast corner of Washington Square.”

  

This map shows architect Charles C. Haight’s design of the Seminary as documented in a street atlas before his original Ninth Avenue buildings were demolished. The grounds of his original master plan are shown in green. The pink and green striped area at right shows original campus grounds now covered by the recent Chelsea Enclave condominium development. The striped area at left would be covered by the currently proposed addition to the Seminary’s historic West Building. At the bottom of the plan, across 20th Street, historic ten-foot front garden setbacks are colored green. The Chelsea Historic District Designation Report states that “the ten foot deep yards enhance the individual buildings on this side of the street and contribute further to the open quality of the parklike grounds of the General Theological Seminary opposite them.” Haight’s precise alignment of the Seminary grounds to these gardens shows how deliberately he incorporated them, and the elegant row house fronts behind them, into his cloister-like master plan. Haight was hired by the Seminary’s visionary Dean, from 1879-1902, E.A. Hoffman, to create a comprehensive new Seminary, what Hoffman called his “grand design.” In keeping most construction along three sides of the block, Haight consolidated, defined and sheltered outdoor space. By this strategy, Hoffman observed, “the function of the grounds as a private park is interfered with as little as possible.” The appropriately focal chapel projects onto the center of the grounds, taking up the traditional north position of a cloister church and forming east and west quads. The west quad contains the original 1836 West Building, which Haight had restored in 1872. A monument to the earlier campus where Clement Clarke Moore had taught, it is given space to stand in its own time, style, symmetry and material. The West Building is balanced in the east quad by a faculty housing building of about the same size, the two informally framing the chapel and allowing an even distribution of open space across the campus. Opening his ring of buildings to the south, Haight flooded the grounds with sun and gave public exposure to the play of shadows across his skillfully composed building faces. Most importantly, he shrank but maintained Clement Clarke Moore’s original town square, still containing two freestanding Seminary buildings, one of them its original West Building. His design allowed the distinctive street wall across 20th Street to retain its informing town square significance. The picturesque informality of Haight’s design is deceptive.  It’s in fact rationally derived, carefully balanced, and brilliantly attuned to both its physical and historic contexts.

According to a GTS press release describing BBB’s presentation of its earlier design, the West Building addition’s “North and West faces are positioned to reinforce the outdoor areas of the western quad of the Seminary.” It reports that BBB firm partners Frederick Bland, now a Landmarks Commissioner, and Elizabeth Leber “characterized the design of the new 5-story structure as furthering the evolution of the Close originally envisioned by architect Charles Coolidge Haight,” a statement tempting Haight’s return from the grave to further the evolution of BBB. There are no empty spaces left in Haight’s master plan. It was fully executed, through the renowned determination of Dean Hoffman. Montgomery Schuyler, the leading architecture critic of Haight’s day, emphasized the Seminary’s completion, calling it one of the two “most complete and homogenous” colleges he knew of and citing its “complete and prearranged scheme.” Schuyler wrote that the Seminary was “its author’s masterpiece, and as exemplary as it is beautiful. It is a public benefaction as well as an artistic achievement thus to create an oasis of beauty and repose . . .” Schuyler, whom the architectural historian Christopher Gray has called notoriously picky, rated the Seminary a “brilliant success.” Intact except for the area covered by Chelsea Enclave, Haight’s accomplishment stands as one of New York’s most impressive examples of private architecture engaging and enlarging the public realm of the street, and one of the city’s very finest blocks. With Chelsea booming, market forces are squeezing shut the open hand of Haight’s design. This comes just as it is better placed than ever to share what it holds out. Just across Tenth Avenue, the High Line, the Chelsea art gallery district, and new commercial and residential development are drawing ever more people down 20th Street.

  

The face of noted architect C.P.H. Gilbert’s 1898 Donac apartment house elegantly curves to make the transition from the standard street line near Ninth Avenue to 20th Street’s mid-block setback opposite the Seminary grounds, even as the dropped bay window within its curve makes the building appear to step down from the height of the avenue’s buildings to that of the street’s. It is less an individual building than an elegant detail of a block that works as a unit. Its pinching of the street’s open space as it approaches Ninth Avenue shelters the block from avenue traffic and enhances its sense of inner spatial expansion. This setback transition is sympathetically bookended at the west end of the block by architect Richard Cook’s 2001 Chelsea Grande apartment building at Tenth Avenue. The entire south side of the street has a concave, garden-embracing shape mirroring the deeper concavity of Haight’s seminary plan. The block is one of New York’s great ensemble pieces. Removing space from it would reduce the entire block. It’s not much a stretch to say that building on the Seminary grounds would be like building in Gramercy Park.

According to Witold Rybczynski’s biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance, when Olmsted designed the Chicago suburb of Riverside, with almost a third of its area given to parks and common open space, the Suburb’s developer proposed building his own house in the middle of one of the parks. Olmsted wrote to him, “I am shocked and pained to hear that such a suggestion could for a moment be entertained.” Even when his client relented, Olmsted refused to continue working for him. It wasn’t just that Olmsted cherished the value of open space to a residential development. His client had come down on the wrong side of the distinction between greater good and self-interest that’s the essence of a park. That distinction is also the reason for a Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Seminary grounds may be privately owned, but in creating the Chelsea Historic District, the city said their worth had outgrown their paper value to the owner, that the public had a stake as well. With a creation story dating back to the mists of Clement Clarke Moore’s apple orchard, few could argue that the space isn’t a common legacy. The Landmarks Commission should share Olmsted’s outrage.

The Commission famously arose from the demolition of Penn Station, after air and highway travel had turned the McKim Mead & White masterpiece into an “uneconomic burden on the railroad,” in the words of its president. He saw dollar signs floating in the unprofitable empty space under its vaults, and Penn Station was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden in 1963. The Pennsylvania Railroad was bankrupt by 1970. In retrospect, its plan for the future was a desperate act of destruction. Desperation is the subtext of the “Plan to Choose Life,” the Seminary’s agenda for financial solvency that includes monetizing Landmarks’ approval for a West Building addition. The Landmarks Commission should be wary of desperate decisions. What’s to be made of a Seminary that can’t stay afloat without putting so much of its real estate on the market? Or marketing its Desmond Tutu Center as a hotel after promoting it as a conference venue, a move that lost the Seminary much credibility with the community? It’s unknown whether the Seminary will fail without selling the West Building addition rights, or whether it will survive even if it does. What’s certain is the permanent diminishment of a great and historic public amenity if the addition is built. Even if the Landmarks Commission must honor its earlier approval, it still holds cards, on the addition site and elsewhere on the block. Let’s hope it plays them in the public interest.

6/21/11 Update: Several community members addressed today’s public hearing, most expressing reservations about the addition’s height or the appropriateness of its glass link to the West Building. ArchiTakes took advantage of the opportunity to verbally address the Commissioners:

“Handing over Chelsea Square’s historic public bequest into private hands flies in the face of the Commission’s very purpose. If the Commission must stand by its earlier approval of a West Building addition, it should do no more than that. To approve changes that aid its commercial exploitation is to be a party to something unconscionable.”

When the Commissioners gave their individual comments at the end of the presentation, the closest any came to trying to justify building the addition was one’s statement that adaptive re-use is a friend to preservation. Agreed! Except for re-use of historically planned open space as luxury condos. The Commission concluded by sending the addition back to the drawing board. This is good, and it’s to be hoped that the Commission will hold the addition to six stories. Anything that makes the addition less profitable to the Brodsky Organization makes it less likely to be built. If it is, one of New York’s very best blocks will be made significantly more ordinary and some of the most picturesque public views in New York, celebrated as a “public benefaction” for over a century, will be replaced by the spectacle of a few rich individuals hogging it for themselves.

One Response to “Losing Ground at Chelsea Square”

  1. Roger Cumming Says:

    Thank you for explaining why the “Seminary block” of 20th Street is such an urban treasure.  As you explain, building in a park is a desperate, antisocial act.  In this instance, it raises awkward questions.  How can a principal in the architectural firm designing this project also serve as a Landmarks Commissioner, supposedly acting in the public interest? (He can’t, without compromising himself).  What control over the design, if any, is being exercised by the Seminary?  (Probably none).  How can the LPC oversee the degradation of the Seminary grounds having previously declared it worthy of preservation?  Has “preservation” taken on a new, more nuanced meaning known only to the LPC?

    I keep thinking about that village in Vietnam that had to be destroyed in order to be saved.

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