Civil War-Era Commercial Buildings that Later Housed Artists’ Studios Designated

Twin adjoining buildings at 827 and 831 Broadway, Image LPC.

Buildings’ significance largely derives from their association with post-World-War-II Abstract Expressionist movement; owners expected to soon apply for permit to build additions. Landmarks voted to designate two twin adjoining buildings as an individual City landmark at its meeting on October 31st, 2017. The buildings, at 827 and 831 Broadway in Manhattan, date to 1867 and were designed by architect Griffith Thomas for Pierre Lorillard, heir to the Lorillard Tobacco Company. The building’s facade is composed of marble, with cast-iron quoins and columns, representing a transitional period before Thomas, who designed many other downtown commercial structures, fully embraced the use of cast iron.

In the 1950s and 60s, the buildings became center of activity for the loose association of artists known as the “New York School” and the Abstract Expressionist movement, at a time when the global nexus of contemporary art shifted from Paris to new York. Willem de Kooning occupied a studio in 831 Broadway, his last City residence before relocating to Long Island. Painters Jules Olitsky, Larry Poons, Elaine de Kooning, and Paul Jenkins all resided and worked in the buildings, as did Museum of Modern Art curator William S. Rubin, who hosted gatherings in his loft where artists mingle d with  foreign dignitaries and people from the political and business fields. In his loft, Rubin displayed Abstract Expressionist works, those of residents of the buildings, as well as works by Jackson Pollock and others.

At a hearing on earlier in the month, support for designation was voiced by area residents, preservationist organizations, Council Member Rosie Mendez, and a representative of the De Kooning Foundation, who stated that de Kooning had been inspired by the quality of light he found within the building, reflected in luminescent work of the time period.  Borough President Gale Brewer and State Senators Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger communicated their support for designation to the Commission by letter.

Representatives of the owners, BH Caerus Broadway LLC, testified that the site had been purchased with the intent of demolishing the buildings and developing the property. Attorney Jay Segel testified that the owners would be justified in pursuing a hardship claim to demolish the structures if designated, but instead to would seek to build additions under a Certificate of Appropriateness, that would “help the public read the cultural significance of the buildings.”

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan embraced landmarking the structures, calling it a “great designation,” said the buildings and the series of artist who occupied them “embodies the Abstract Expressionism period and the art scene of New York.” Srinivasan stated that the designation would reflect a growing trend by the Commission of taking into account cultural value when identifying and protecting landmarks, citing the Stonewall Inn and Tammany Hall as other recent examples.  She asked commissioners to consider creative ways of making the cultural significance apparent, and how to regulate such landmarks. She remarked that oversight of such landmarks would test the Commission’s “intellect” and “preservation philosophy.”

Srinivasan thanked the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation for alerting the Commission to the building’s significance beyond its architecture.

Commissioner Fred Bland said the buildings merited landmarks status on the basis of their architecture alone or their cultural significance alone, and their designation was a “double win.” Commissioner Michael Goldblum agreed that the buildings were part of “a series of remarkable cultural designations,” but he contended that it differed from the Stonewall, in that the buildings’ architecture is deeply entwined with its cultural significance, having been appreciated and sought out as studio space by artists. Commissioner Michael Devonshire said Landmarks was “late to the game” among preservation bodies in recognizing buildings for cultural worth, and said structures should be acknowledged a “stage sets in which lives are created and magnificence is manifested.”

Commissions unanimously voted in favor of designation.

LPC: 827-831 Broadway Building, 827-831 Broadway, Manhattan (LP-2594 (Oct. 31, 2017).

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