Certificate of Appropriateness Testimony

[email protected] – Designation Testimony February 11, 2013

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A private home, a boarding house, a private school, a hotel, a police department, a hospital, and a firehouse – who  says an old building can’t be adaptively reused?  160 Chambers Street has been all of these things, reflecting the various changes in the neighborhood over the centuries.

160 Chambers Street was part of a group of 29 buildings not included in the TriBeCa Historic Districts and that were proposed instead as individual landmarks.  While some of those buildings, included in the community’s initial proposal for an historic district, have been landmarked, others such as this one have remained heard but not designated since 1989.  HDC is happy to see attention again being paid to this remarkable little survivor, and we urge the commission to landmark 160 Chambers to ensure its future survival.

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Ralph Walker’s Salvation Army National Headquarters Building is one of 14th Street’s most impressive structures.  The through-block building includes a residential section, offices and printing annex, and a public auditorium.  Walker’s design keeps these three functions separate in three distinct masses of varying scales, though they retain cohesiveness through their common cast stone cladding and cast metal ornament.  The residential section and the offices are each housed in seventeen-story towers facing West 13th Street and West 14th Street, respectively.  The auditorium, with its vast, ribbed entrance portal that seems to mimic the curtain on a theater’s stage, is undoubtedly the center of attention.

The asymmetrical form of the building, with its irregular massing and auditorium that reads almost as a separate structure, is characteristic of Walker’s interest in designing the unexpected.  Using the 1916 Zoning Resolution’s requirement that skyscrapers be set back from the street, Walker experimented with the irregular placement of these setbacks to create visual interest and drama.  The massing of each tower contains setbacks that differ from one another, eschewing symmetry and further separating the building’s various functions.

This building is already “half-landmarked” as the northern boundary of the Greenwich Village Historic District runs through it.  The 13th Street façade is described in the district’s designation report, and the time to designate of the 14th Street section of the building, which includes its glorious auditorium entrance, has finally come.

The 2013 alterations to and effective loss of Walker’s New York Telephone Company’s West Eighteenth Street building brought to light the work of this noted architect that remain undesignated and at risk.  Last August, HDC submitted RFE’s for  three buildings by Ralph Walker, the New York Telephone Company Buildings at 425-437 West 50th Street and 204-214 Second Avenue, and this building.

During the interwar years, along with Ely Jacques Kahn and Raymond Hood, Ralph Walker “transform[ed] the city’s architecture from a civic to a commercial art,” writes Robert A.M. Stern in New York 1930.  Working with corporate clients, they showed that commercial architecture could be a serious, artistic contribution to the cityscape.  These new buildings for a new era, often much larger than their predecessors, called for a new style.  Rather than the rule-bound Beaux-Arts, Walker used the more freeing Art Deco and Art Moderne styles.  Asymmetrical setbacks, ornament in monochromatic, shallow relief in available (and relatively inexpensive) cast stone, and entrances decorated with more expensive metals all became key pieces of his designs.  Walker said, “the ornament of the skyscraper should be so complicated in its structure as not to be readily comprehended; its framework should be as hidden as the steel structure itself.  It should repay repeated interest and study . . . It should first be thought of as textured relief, then its underlying structure be noticed and lastly its detail.”

In an article dated May 17, 1957 and titled “Architect of the Century:  Ralph Thomas Walker”, the New York Times noted, “He believes that buildings can be monumental without being enormous in scale.”  Walker’s works are monuments and deserving of proper recognition and protection.

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The Historic Districts Council is happy to speak in favor of the proposed Park Avenue Historic District which will extend landmarking to those pieces of the avenue on the Upper East Side not currently protected under existing historic districts.   We have long supported the work of Historic Park Avenue, Defenders of the Upper East Side, and Carnegie Hill Neighbors to complete the designation of the avenue, and the effort is one of HDC’s 2014 Six to Celebrate.

Historic buildings on this iconic avenue date from 1856 into the mid-20th century in an interesting array of 19th-century rowhouses and flats buildings, grand mansions, impressive institutional buildings, and distinctive 20th-century apartment buildings. In just a few blocks, the history of the growth of Park Avenue and the Upper East Side is told by this important collection of buildings. The architecture is equal to that already designated on the Upper East Side, and many of the same notable architects, including Emery Roth, Rosario Candela, and Delano & Aldrich, designed structures both within and outside of the existing district boundaries. When combined with the unique layout of Park Avenue and its planted malls, these buildings create the “special sense of place” the New York City Landmarks Law uses to describe historic districts.

Park Avenue is already designated from 91st to 94th Streets as part of the Carnegie Hill Historic District and from 62nd to 79th Streets in the Upper East Side Historic District. HDC asks that the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the nonlandmarked stretches to more fully tell and protect the story of this notable avenue.

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