In its length and breadth, Manhattan is a free art museum for all of those who will open their eyes, whether they are Knickerbocker heirs or hoboes from Hoboken. To walk down the street is to encounter museum-worthy works of art one after another laid right out along the sidewalk for all to see at a fee of $0. I have made this point so often that I am turning blue in the face. So imagine my joy at finding an ally in The New York Times.
“A Bit of New York History at Risk,” by Andrew Berman and Eric Rayman, describes the Lorillard Buildings on Broadway, paired iron-front structures of four stories, erected in 1866 and once hosting for a period after 1958 the penthouse studio of Willem de Kooning. The twins are now at risk of demolition to make way for a 14-story building.
After examining the history of the building, Berman and Rayman extol the allure of Manhattan in terms that seem more applicable to an art museum than a history museum. After all, while history in the form of the spirit of de Kooning and others may permeate the air of old streets, absent signage or guidebooks it is unlikely to be directly perceived. On the other hand, a streetscape’s sculpture, façade decor, garden flora, railing ornament and other embellishment are perceived directly and enjoyed without explication. Here Berman and Rayman express this happy feature of city life:
A joy of strolling the streets of New York is to see so many varied edifices. When you meander in the Village or Harlem or Chelsea or almost any other neighborhood, you are likely to stumble upon a unique and historic building.
We understand that New York is continually changing, but what makes so many people want to live or visit here is the sense of excitement and discovery in the streets. The Lorillard buildings add dignity and grandeur to the city. One does not have to be a student of architecture to admire the craftsmanship of artisans using hand tools a century and a half ago. These old buildings are like New York’s senior citizens and should be venerated as such, not cast aside.
Other cities create replica historic wharves or colonial markets to attract visitors. New York doesn’t have to create them — we have them, and for the health of the city, we should preserve them.
The city’s landmarks commission last year rejected appeals to list the Lorillard buildings, 827 and 831 Broadway. The reasons given smack of the curatorial, reflecting the precise opposite of the logical rationale for preservation. Here is how Berman and Rayman describe the decision:
In August 2016, the Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected an application to protect 831 Broadway and its next-door twin, 827. According to its director of research at the time, the commission decided that New York already had enough buildings with “earlier cast-iron façades” and that “there are buildings on Broadway of a similar date, type and style” to represent this era of development in New York.
Good grief! You mean there’s already enough beauty in New York? No need to save any more of it? The mission of the landmarks commission should not be to treat the city as some sort of playground for museum curators; it should be to protect civic beauty for those who visit and live or work in Manhattan.
Fortunately, the commission has been prevailed upon to reconsider. I hope they do. But what if they reject the application again? Is there any hope to maintain the beauty of the two cast-iron buildings?
Yes. But many preservationists, and other interested parties, will not like it. It is the construction of a new building behind the old Broadway façades.
The word façadectomy evokes sneers from many, but if well done it can save a street from an insensitive architectural incursion without robbing a property owner of his or her right to redevelop the property. The possibilities on Broadway are clear. The façades should be saved and a taller building that reflects the historic buildings’ original design should go up behind them. Better that it be set back as far as possible – enough to insert a terrace, perhaps to retain the front rooms and maybe even add a hallway between the old and the new. The setback would, in theory, satisfy preservationists who believe an addition requires differentiation from the original. But it would also maintain the sense of the structures’ original massing for observers on the street and sidewalks.
Rebusiness Online has an article describing a loan in this proposed project as of May, and containing an image that could be either a façadectomy (of a lesser sort, erecting a modernist building behind the two cast-iron façades), or the situation as it is today, though the rear building, if it is now part of the property, must have been built recently based on other photos shown on my Google search for “831 broadway nyc” (the twin with de Kooning’s studio).
Preservation organizations have done excellent work over half a century and more to protect beautiful old buildings. That should remain their chief focus. Compromise can help rationalize a contentious process, in no place more so than Manhattan. Let’s hope these twin cast-iron masterpieces can be saved in toto – but if not, let’s hope that a useful and attractive compromise won’t fall victim to extremism on either side of the architectural and preservationist divide. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.