Landmarks Approved Revised Plan for Harlem’s Corn Exchange Building

Corn Exchange Building proposal (does not reflect LPC modifications). Credit: Danois Architects

Artimus Construction plans to restore the deteriorated remains of the original six-story Harlem landmark. On September 11, 2012, Landmarks approved Artimus Construction’s redevelopment proposal for the severely dilapidated Mount Morris Bank, also known as the Corn Exchange building, at 81 East 125th Street in Harlem. Landmarks designated the 1884 six-story building as an individual City landmark in 1993. The red-brick building once featured a combination of Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival-style architecture and terra cotta and iron ornament, but has rapidly deteriorated since its designation.

The building was abandoned in the 1970s, and lost its mansard roof to a fire in the late 1990s. In 2000, the City’s Economic Development Corporation selected Ethel Bates to rehabilitate the building and turn it into a culinary school. Bates failed to maintain the property, and EDC sued to reclaim title. Landmarks later filed a demolition-by-neglect lawsuit against Bates, citing the building’s missing windows and collapsed floors. In 2009, Buildings partially demolished the building’s remaining top two floors citing dangerous conditions above the second floor. Two years later, EDC issued an RFEI seeking a developer to rehabilitate the building.

On April 24, 2012, Artimus Construction presented its initial plan to Landmarks. Artimus’ Barry Gurvitch described the proposal as an attempt to “recreate the grandeur and ambiance” of the original Corn Exchange, while also creating “a viable commercial building.” The proposal, designed by Danois Architects, would restore the building’s two remaining floors, rebuild the upper four floors, and create a set-back clerestory along the roof. The new building would include a mansard roof, prominent flues, and three levels of squared bay windows. Gurvitch conceded that the proposal would not be an exact replica of the original building, but it would preserve the “essence” of what was once there. The brick in the rebuilt upper floors would match the brick used in the existing lower floors, and patinated copper would highlight the bay windows. Some decorative elements would be made using fiberglass.

The Historic Districts Council’s Nadezhda Williams testified in opposition, criticizing the proposal for being neither a faithful reconstruction, nor a contemporary interpretation of the Corn Exchange. Williams said the design felt “very flat,” and argued that fiberglass would be an inappropriate material.

The commissioners largely agreed with the criticism. Vice Chair Pablo Vengoechea said he was pleased to see a proposal to revitalize the site, but found that the proposal lacked a “real commitment” to an architectural approach. Vengoechea suggested that a “faithful reconstruction” might be the “safest” approach to the site. Commissioner Diana Chapin suggested that Artimus could take the design in a more modern direction, but found that as proposed, the design only served as a reminder of “what we’re losing.” Commissioners Libby Ryan and Michael Devonshire expressed concern about the proposed materials, and particularly objected to the use of fiberglass.

Artimus returned to Landmarks in September with a revised plan. The squared bay windows would now more accurately represent the curved bay windows in the original building, while the depth of the other window frames would be increased to give the facade additional texture. The cornice above the first floor would be made of stone, rather than fiberglass, but cornice details on the upper floors would still rely on fiberglass. The mansard roof would be covered in synthetic slate. The mansard would be redesigned and increased in size to two stories, and the chimneys would be extended.

The commissioners responded favorably to the revisions. Commissioner Michael Goldblum stated that the difference between the plans was “night and day,” and he only recommended small alterations, including that the mansard should have a steeper angle, and that fiberglass on the upper cornice be eliminated. Commissioner Joan Gerner agreed with Goldblum on tweaking the angle of the mansard, and commended Artimus for “breathing such wonderful life” into the building. Commissioner Christopher Moore found the project generally approvable, but objected to the use of synthetic slate.

Commissioner Fred Bland disagreed with his colleagues and was “philosophically opposed” to the direction of the proposal. Bland argued that the level of craftsmanship on the original building could not accurately be recreated, and that an application to rebuild the site should see the Corn Exchange “interpreted in a completely different way.” He stated that rather than a “pastiche,” Artimus should have proposed a contemporary and “highly abstracted” design.

Landmarks approved the proposal, with modifications, by a vote of 8-1-0, with Bland casting the lone vote in dissent.

LPC: Mount Morris Bank, 81 East 125th Street, Manhattan (12-5776) (September 11, 2012) (Architect: Danois Architects).

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