Tortoise-shaped roof addition to former Tammany Hall proves controversial

Proposed Rendering of Tammany Hall Addition. Image Credit: LPC

Proposed Rendering of Tammany Hall Addition. Image Credit: LPC

Applicants argued that addition would echo the domes of classical architecture, pay homage to the Lenape who once occupied Manhattan. On November 25, 2014, the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered an application to construct an addition to a building that housed the Tammany political machine at 44 Union Square East, an individual City landmark. The building was the third Tammany Hall constructed, and the only one extant. Designated in 2013, the neo-Georgian 1929 building was later utilized as a union hall, theater, and film school. The building is substantially intact, though storefronts have been created at the ground level facing Union Square Park.

Margaret Cotter, President of Liberty Theaters, which owns the building, testified that the structure required improvements, and with the existing floor area, was “difficult to pay for itself.” Cotter said the proposed addition would “highlight and enhance” the building’s landmark qualities, and would make for a “solid corner presence” on the block.

Architects Harry Kendall and Todd Poisson of the firm BKSK, presented the plan for a 30-foot-tall addition to the three-and-a-half-story landmark. The addition would entail the demolition of the original slate hipped roof, which is partially obscured by a balustrade. Kendall, who referred to the addition as an “unabashedly contemporary dome,” said it would be constructed of glass and steel tubes in the abstracted form of a tortoise’s shell. The self-supporting structure, set back 13 feet from the front facade, would appear to float above the balustrade. A raised lip at the front of the addition would create the effect a dome when viewed from the front, which Kendall said maintained the same geometric proportion of the Pantheon. He maintained that the existing building was “diminutive” for its location, surrounded by much taller buildings, and further that Union Square was an actively commercial setting, not a place for “quiet decorum.” The addition would be highly visible from Union Square Park, as well as from streets to the west and north. Kendall noted that American neo-Classical architecture often incorporated domes, citing examples Monticello and the Massachusetts State House.

Tammany Hall was named for Lenape chief Tamanend.  The turtle-shell form of the addition would acknowledge the building’s relationship to the Lenape who occupied Manhattan. The tortoise is an animal of spiritual significance to the Lenape.  Kendall claimed the project had been endorsed by the Lenape Center.

The building’s facades materials would be restored as part of the project, the heavily altered base would be redesigned to bring the facades’ masonry down to the street level, and create uniform “quietly modern” storefronts and signage. Three plaques would be removed from the building and windows created in their places.

The Union Square Community Coalition’s Jack Taylor said the ensemble would not be perceived as a “neo-religious symbol of a Native American tribal chieftain,” but as “a mammoth structure whose proportions and style are at violent odds with one another.” James Kaplan, of the National Democratic Club and McManus Midtown Democratic Club, speaking in opposition to the proposal, testified to the building’s rich history in the labor movement and New Deal social welfare programs, and said its significance would be “defaced” by the proposal. Alex Herrera of the New York Landmarks Conservancy said the proposal would inappropriately treat the individual landmark base, with the addition becoming the center of attention. He said any addition to the building should be “smaller and more deferential.” Manhattan Community Board 5 also recommended that Landmarks deny the proposal.

Jennifer Falk, of the Union Square Partnership, testified in favor of the plan, saying it would enhance the east end of the park, and help to create an “attractive commercial destination.” One speaker read from a letter by James Polshek which praised the “brilliant formal strategy” behind the proposal, which succeeded “urbanistically and architecturally,” and would contribute to the building’s “long life and vitality.”

Landmarks Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan found that the existing landmark “begs for enhancement,” and had the capacity for enlargement. She found the concept of the tortoise-shell form of the addition “intriguing, but…hard to grasp.” Commissioner John Gustafsson said he could not support the addition as presented, calling it “loudly modern,” as well as highly visible and destructive to the landmark’s original fabric. Commissioner Michael Devonshire also found the addition “egregiously large,” and asked the applicants to consider a smaller addition that would retain the hipped slate roof. Commissioner Michael Goldblum found the building could sustain a large addition, but that proposed form was not right for the site, and asked the applicants to work on creating a better relationship between the new and old architecture. Commissioner Christopher Moore cautioned his colleagues against too readily dismissing the allusions to Lenape culture and religion.

Chair Srinivasan asked the applicants to consider commissioner comments, and return at a later date with a revised proposal.

LPC: Tammany Hall, 44 Union Square East, Manhattan (16-3899) (Nov. 25, 2015) (Architects: BKSK Architects).

2 thoughts on “Tortoise-shaped roof addition to former Tammany Hall proves controversial

  1. The proposed addition creates a significant modern visual intrusion to the classically designed building – and as such, I feel the application should be denied by the Commission.

  2. Despite its Landmark status the building is not particularly distinguished in either its architectural design or block massing. It is rather heavy, inconsistent and weak in its detailing. However, having said that, from my own experience the regeneration of any historic building or urban place inevitably means some sort of trade off, i.e. you give a bit to get a bit. The seriously desperate degradation of this building was unforgivable and the front elevation basically destroyed by the cheap wine and beer shop and other shop units. The big development bonus for the building would be the restoration of the dressed ashlar plinth giving some visual order to the street and square by the addition of restrained new shopping designs. This coupled with the restoration of other features and renewal of decayed building fabric would give the building and the urban surrounds back a good measure of its 1929 and early thirties elegance. The proposed glass roof is a clear attempt by the architects to meet the challenge of our times and while it will certainly impact on the visual lines, no one is denying this, its complex structure will be exciting and stimulate public interest. If the building was of higher (National or International) architectural quality then I would not hesitate to say No! but its early 20th century averageness could be greatly enhanced by a symbol of our time i.e. the proposed complex glazed dome.
    alex macgregor, architect.

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