The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Iconic building could be in danger of facing wrecking ball

    Henry Melcher reports for The Achitect's Newspaper. Art Versus Real Estate on Vestry: Tenants push for landmark status for threatened New York City loft building. The old cobblestone streets of Tribeca meet the gray asphalt of the West Side Highway at the corner of Vestry and West. The uneven din of trucks making deliveries mixes with the constant whir of traffic peeling alongside the Hudson River. It is an unofficial border between the stately brick buildings of Tribeca and the glass towers being sewn into Manhattan’s West Side. At this corner is 67 Vestry—a nine-story palazzo—that is fighting to keep its place in time. In February, RFR, the building’s current owner, filed plans for an 11-story residential project on the site. Before new condos can rise, though, a significant Tribeca building must fall. To stop that from happening, the tenants of 67 Vestry—many of whom are working artists—are trying to get their building landmarked. Sixty-Seven Vestry dates back to 1897 and was designed by Frederick Dinkelberg, the architect who later worked with Daniel Burnham on the Flatiron Building. The building’s first life as a coffee and tea warehouse for The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company is still apparent today. Above the building’s rusted loading docks are Romanesque openings and alongside its soot-brushed brick are floral roundels. In 1910, Frank Helmle—an architect whose firm designed the Metropolitan Life North Building—added a two-story addition to the building. And by the 1970s, 67 Vestry had been transformed into a hub for artists like John Chamberlain, Marisol, and Andy Warhol. At first glance, what is happening at 67 Vestry is not entirely surprising. When a developer sees a lucrative opportunity, they will routinely bulldoze history to make way for granite countertops and floor-to-ceiling windows. But this building, which fostered some of the city’s greatest artistic talents, is threatened by a developer who is also a prolific art collector: RFR’s co-founder and principal, Aby Rosen. In press accounts, Rosen is described as a “real estate mogul and prolific art collector,” “developer and bon vivant,” “the merry prankster of the city’s real estate and art scenes.” He’s a “Page Six staple” and a good friend of Jeff Koons. Rosen collects architectural icons like they’re pieces of art; RFR owns both the Lever House and Seagram Building. He has recently faced backlash over his plans to remove a Picasso tapestry from the Seagram’s Four Seasons restaurant. For years, Rosen has seamlessly straddled the worlds of art and real estate, but now they are colliding at the corner of Vestry and West. He owns over 100 Warhol’s and once hosted a dinner in honor of John Chamberlain. When Robert Wilson, the playwright and director, moved into the building in the early 1970s, his studio was as raw as the neighborhood. "The concrete floor was painted battleship grey and the walls were cold, bluish white. There were blue exposed light bulbs hanging throughout the space," Wilson wrote in an email to AN. "Standing in the middle of the living space, one looked out at the Hudson as if one were on a ship." It was from on board this ship, docked eight floors above the Hudson, where Wilson and Phillip Glass developed their famous opera, “Einstein on the Beach.” Tribeca has, of course, changed dramatically since then, and the tenants of 67 Vestry say they helped make that happen. “We came in and toughed it out, and that eventually created this neighborhood,” said Roland Gebhardt, a sculptor and designer who has been in the building since 1974.  Aby Rosen bought 67 Vestry in 2005 with supposed intentions to replace it with condos. Tenants—and reports from the time—say he started emptying out the building by not allowing market-rate tenants to resign their leases. This reportedly happened to Robert Wilson. When asked about his departure from the building, he would only say, “When Aby Rosen bought the building I eventually moved out.” AN could not independently verify Rosen’s actions and RFR did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. But, today, only 14 of the building’s 25 units are occupied—and all of the tenants have rent-stabilized leases. Cathy Drew, who runs the non-profit River Project, is one of those tenants. She is not surprised by Rosen’s actions. “He may be a patron of the arts in some ways, but this is business,” she said. Since Rosen purchased the building, tenants have been quite critical of its upkeep—especially after Sandy. When the storm hit New York, it hit 67 Vestry especially hard. Tenants accused Rosen of purposefully “dragging his feet” on necessary repairs. It took weeks for the water, electric, and heating systems to come back online, and the building’s freight elevator is still out of service. When tenants are asked about where they will go, or what they will do if Rosen’s plans move forward, they say they are entirely focused on getting the building landmarked. The Landmarks Preservation Committee told AN that their application is currently under review. If landmark status is not approved, it is not clear what will rise in 67 Vestry’s place. There are no renderings for the project, but SLCE is listed as the architect of record. Since Rosen tends to work with big-name architects, another firm could oversee the final design. To Gebhardt, it is not about what comes next; it is about what is currently there. “If [Rosen] really was interested in doing something iconic, the iconic thing to do would be to preserve the icons that created the neighborhood.”

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  • NYC's first concrete building waiting to be restored

    Patrick W. Ciccone reports for The Architect's Newspaper. Set in Stone: How best to restore America's first concrete building?
    American concrete begins in Brooklyn. The New York and Long Island Stone Contracting Company, formed in 1869, was the first U.S. company to produce concrete, and its headquarters, located at 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street in Gowanus, is the earliest concrete building in New York City, dating from 1872. The Coignet Building—as it is colloquially known, for the name of its early concrete product, coignet stone—has become one of the most watched New York City landmarks in peril. Designated in 2006—likely sparing it from demolition—the building stood alone for years as brownfield remediation plans for the Whole Foods Brooklyn site dragged on. It was a frequent target for photographers looking for a slice of Detroit-like decay in the otherwise booming borough, and with the Whole Foods complex now complete, the Coignet Building is all the more prominent as a near ruin penned against the gleaming new grocery. Whole Foods is bound by a 2011 covenant with the building’s owner (who formerly owned the entire site where the grocery now sits) to restore the building’s exterior. Those who have been closely watching the building’s decay had expected any plans for its restoration to go to a hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission. However, with no fanfare, the New York Department of Buildings in early February issued permits for work on the site, following Landmarks’ 2013 issuing of a staff-level certificate of no effect for the proposed work, which means that there will be no public comment. News of the Coignet Building’s restoration should be welcome. However, the building has arguably suffered through attempted demolition by neglect in the past decade, and the Landmarks permit allows for “removing and replacing in-kind severely deteriorated cast stone units” including the “cornice, quoins, columns, pilasters, window surrounds, door surrounds, sills, and the entryway pediments, architraves and friezes”—i.e. much of the exposed original coignet stone on the building whose decay is directly attributable to this neglect. The building is of extreme historical importance for its role in materials history—it is the Genesis 1:1 of American concrete production. The Coignet Building’s significance is indisputably tied to the material from which it is constructed, the artificial stone produced at the concrete manufacturing yards located behind it, where Whole Foods now sits. Besides the Coignet Building, only three other known locations across New York feature the company’s concrete: the Cleft Ridge Span in Prospect Park, select locations in the arches of St. Patrick Cathedral in Midtown, and three surviving houses on Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn. Any replacement of the original material at the Coignet Building should be held to an extraordinary high standard. Kate Daly, the executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and one of the researchers responsible for the discovery of the building’s significance and subsequent designation, maintains that alarm is not warranted, as Landmarks plans to work closely with the architects to evaluate the condition of the original material. However, an earlier iteration of drawings submitted to Landmarks by BL Architects—a firm with no consequential technical preservation experience in New York City—clearly indicates much of the building for replacement based only on a visual inspection. Though one hopes that Landmarks staff will hold the architects’ feet to the fire on the matter, as Daly promises, it is extremely disappointing that they will not be required to do so in public before the commission, or to submit a more detailed analysis of existing conditions as a condition for the building permit. The Landmarks approval conditions stipulate that the architects submit material samples for replacement in kind for concrete units that are deteriorated beyond repair. This issue is fraught with enormous questions of authenticity—should replacement simply match the appearance of the coignet stone, or does replacement in kind mean using the original concrete production process, presumably different from modern methods of producing cast stone? Since coignet stone belonged to a wider category of substitute stone denounced in the nineteenth century by Ruskinian adherents as sham imitations of stone, this question goes to the very nature of the material. (Indeed, Coignet company literature touted that its “artificial stone” was superior to nature’s own product.) The lack of care for the building (and the awkward abutment of the new Whole Foods complex around it) are ironic given the homilies to the sustainability inside the grocery store: prominently placed signs tout that the building is made from the reclaimed bricks and salvaged boardwalks destroyed in Sandy, and that it is located on a “remediated brownfield site to protect the environment” and “reduce blight.” Restoring the building in the most careful fashion likely would cost Whole Foods the least, as the building is eligible for historic tax credits worth up to 40 percent of project costs. This is a path that, to my knowledge, Whole Foods has chosen not to pursue, costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Indeed, the building’s apparent decay may be illusory. The exposed coignet stone is covered in a later stucco coating that easily flakes off to the touch, and, besides cracks in the underlying stone, may actually be in reasonable shape. Having closely watched the building crumble, we must even more closely watch its nominal restoration.  

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