Union Square Park, Bergdorf Goodman, IRT Powerhouse Among Items Considered at Third Special Hearing

The Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse. Image credit: LPC

The Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse. Image credit: LPC

Wide support voiced for designation of monumental Stanford White-designed powerhouse and iconic Classicist department store, despite owner opposition. On November 5, 2015, Landmarks held the third of four special hearings to address the backlog of items calendared prior to 2010, but never brought to a vote on designation. Previous hearings were held on October 8 and 22, 2015. The November hearing was the first devoted to items in Manhattan.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick testified that the Federal-style 57 Sullivan Street House, the Italianate loft building at 315 Broadway, and the cast-iron Ladies Mile retail building James McCreery & Company all warranted prompt designation. Glick said the neighborhood was under “constant pressure” from developers and without Landmarks protection, much of the area’s “cultural significance” will be lost. A representative of Councilmember Margaret Chin spoke in support of the designation of the 143 Chamber Street Building, the 2 Oliver Street House, and the Excelsior Power Company Building, and commended Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan for addressing the backlog in manner ”inclusive to all stakeholders.” Councilmember Corey Johnson called the house at 57 Sullivan Street a “spectacular Federal-style building,” and asked Landmarks to save it from “preservation limbo.”

The Interborough Rapid Transit Powerhouse at 850 12th Avenue has been the subject of three previous hearings, first in 1979 and most recently in 2009. The 1904 Beaux Arts Stanford White-designed powerhouse occupies an entire block and exemplifies the principles of the City Beautiful movement, which held that industrial architecture could serve to beautify American cities. Originally generating power to operate the IRT subway stations, the structure now functions as a steam plant and is owned by Consolidated Edison.

Constantine Sounalis, Vice President of Steam Operation for Con Ed, testified that designation would make providing energy to New Yorkers “more difficult and expensive.” He said the company needed the flexibility to make interior and exterior alteration to operate efficiently. Plant Manager Edward Conway further argued that landmark designation was “not consistent with an operating plant,” and that walls or the roof might need to be immediately breached in an emergency situation.

Councilmember Helen Rosenthal advocated for the powerhouse’s designation, calling it’s a “technical marvel” that represented the very best of the City Beautiful movement.  Alyssa Bishop of the Hudson River Powerhouse Group said the building was a visible monument to the “power and potential” of the City. A representative of the Guides Association of New York City said the building was “an integral part of our City’s history,” and a “celebration of our mass transit system.” A representative of Community Board 4 also recommended designation.

Mary Ann Quinson, member of the Goodman family which still owns the Bergdorf Goodman building at 745 Fifth Avenue, spoke in opposition to designation. She said the building had been repeatedly altered throughout the years to meet changing retail needs and that designation would curtail future retail use of the structure. Quinson further stated the building was not representative of architect Ely Jacques Kahn’s style. Retained by the Goodman family, architect Tim Witzig of the firm PKSB testified that the building did not rise to the status of an individual City landmark, that it lacked significance as representative of the City’s department store typologies, and that it was not among Kahn’s greatest works.  Fried Frank attorney Zachary Bernstein said any support for designation was “rooted in sentimentality.”

Speaker Thomas Collins testified that Bergdorf Goodman was “synonymous with elegance and sophistication,” and praised Kahn’s “restrained classical design.” The Society for the Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough noted that the department store replaced the Vanderbilt mansion, which previously stood at the site. She testified that Kahn’s design skillfully recalled the previous structure in what she called an “urbanistic success,” retaining the grand entrance, stone cladding, and copper mansard. The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Andrea Goldwyn called the building a “shopping landmark” that “defines the street as much as the street defines it.” Designation was also supported by representatives of Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and Manhattan Community Board 5.

Union Square Park was originally opened in 1839 and redesigned by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in 1872. The Park was the site of the first Labor Day parade in 1882, and has historically served as a site of political gathering and protest. Jack Taylor, speaking for the Union Square Community Coalition, said the park had been so altered in the years since its initial calendaring in 1977 that it no longer merited designation. Taylor said a 1985 renovation had significantly altered the Park’s design and character, as did a redesign of the park’s north end which saw the creation of a restaurant, completed in 2010. The Historic Districts Council also found the park to lack historic integrity, and recommended that it be de-calendared.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy favored designation of the park for its role in City history and in labor history, as did the New York Chapter of the Victorian Society in America.

Members of the Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon, opposed the landmarking of 4 West 43rd Street.  The building, formerly the Hotel Renaissance, was built to designs of Clarence S. Luce in 1894 and served as the Columbia University Club from 1917 until its purchase by the church in 1973. Church members declared the organization had spent millions of dollars to bring the building “back from the brink” in the 1970s, and that numerous alterations to the building over its history precluded it from meriting individual landmark status.

Seven 42nd Street theaters were also considered at the hearing, as both interior and exterior landmarks, all initially considered in 1982. Five of the seven theaters are now controlled by New 42nd Street, an organization formed in 1990 by the City and State to revitalize the Times Square area. New 42nd Street’s Cora Cahan testified the organization’s guidelines mandated the theaters’ preservation and restoration and asked Landmarks to remove them from its calendar as the theater were adequately protected. The 1912 Empire Theater, designed by Thomas Lamb, and the 1905 French Renaissance Liberty Theater are controlled by New 42nd Street in partnership with Forest City Ratner. Vice President of Development Andrew Miller said the two theaters had both been integrated into a larger complex and that designation of the theaters would “ignore reality and serve no benefit”

The New York Landmarks Conservancy recommended that the properties be de-calendared without prejudice. Support for designation came from the Guides Association of New York City.

Srinivasan left the record open, allowing interested parties to submit testimony until November 19.

LPC: Special Public Hearing for the Backlog Initiative (Nov. 5, 2015).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law)

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