Landmarks Request Proposal Revisions for Firehouse to Cultural Center Conversion

120 East 125th Street, Manhattan. Credit: CityLand.

Commissioners suggested retaining former firehouse’s garage door and rethinking mural sizes for planned cultural center. On November 13, 2012, Landmarks considered a proposal by the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), to make modifications to the individually landmarked Fire Hook and Ladder Company No. 14 at 120 East 125th Street in Harlem. The Romanesque Revival firehouse, designed by Napoleon LeBrun & Sons and completed in 1889, was designated in 1997.  The firehouse was closed in 2003 due to budget cuts. The City Council approved sale of the building in 2007, on the condition that it be transferred to a community service provider. (See CityLand’s past coverage here.) CCCADI was awarded the firehouse, and presented the proposal in order to convert the firehouse into a new space for the Institute.

Melody Capote, Director of External Affairs for the Institute, stated that moving to the 125th Street location, from the present Hell’s Kitchen location, would “place us in greater proximity to the constituencies we serve.” She stated that the site would host exhibitions, concerts, lectures, after-school programs, and “community-based learning.” Capote expressed hope that the location would allow the Institute to become a place where community members could “share ideas and dialogue.”

Meisha Hunter, of Li/Saltzman Architects, presented the preservation work that would be part of the project, which would entail the restoration of the historic components of the facade and the building’s slate roof. The westernmost bay on the ground floor would be restored, while the historic panel on the eastern bay would be retained and incorporated into a new egress door. Signage would be installed at the location of a grandfathered flagpole above the westernmost bay and LED lighting would replace existing floodlights. The firehouse is adjoined by shorter structures on both sides, and the Institute proposed to commission local artists to paint murals on the building’s side walls. Both murals would take up considerable space on each of the side walls. Hunter stated the murals “would really underscore the mission of this cultural institution.”

Rafael Fernandez of the CSA Group testified that the existing non-historic firehouse garage door would be replaced with transparent glass infill, which he said would serve the museum’s mission to “engage the public sphere.” Mechanical equipment added to the roof would be set back 50 feet from the front facade and would not be visible from the street. A frosted glass transom window would host information and images about events and exhibits by projecting onto it from inside the building.

Nadezhda Williams, Director of Preservation and Research for the Historic Districts Council, testified that “more attention should be paid to the historic ground floor.” She suggested that the applicants push the infill back to allow for the retention of the garage door, which could be closed at night. Williams stated that this approach has been taken at other sites around the City.  Manhattan Community Board 11 submitted a written report in support of the proposal.

The commissioners generally expressed satisfaction with the firehouse’s restoration and adaptive reuse, but asked to see modifications before granting approval. Vice Chair Pablo Vengoechea recommended that the applicants work on the design to retain the solidity of the ground floors, finding that the all-glass infill “begins to look like retail.” Vengoechea also found that the large wall murals as proposed “overwhelm the building,” and suggested their “reduction and containment.” Commissioner Michael Goldblum agreed, calling the glass infill “completely generic,” and further determined that the murals added to the “cacophony” of 125th Street. Goldblum believed quieter murals would be more effective. Commissioner Libby Ryan also found that the murals “detract and distract” from the landmark’s roof line. Chair Robert B. Tierney found many of the proposed changes appropriate, but asked the applicants to rethink the ground floor and infill, and return to Landmarks at a later date. The hearing concluded with no action taken by the Commission.

LPC: Fire Hook & Ladder Company No. 14, 120 East 125th Street, Manhattan (13-6695) (Nov. 13, 2012) (Architect: Li/Saltzman Architects; CSA Group).

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