What to preserve in Manhattanville – and how will it be preserved?

Preservationists question Columbia’s expansion plan
December 5, 2007

Backers of Columbia University’s planned expansion into west Harlem contend that the neighborhood comprises little more than low-slung auto body shops and abandoned buildings. Preservationists, however, say look closer and you’ll see spectacular architecture that holds a living link to the city’s past.

“A city is not just its museums or its cathedrals,” said Michael Henry Adams, an architectural historian and author of “Harlem Lost and Found.”

“A lot of the buildings in the neighborhood had humble functions, but they’re magnificent structures and the architects wanted them to express the idea that even though they had utilitarian functions, they are part of the great metropolis of New York,” he said.

Columbia has enlisted the Italian architect Renzo Piano to design its new Manhattanville campus in a plan that residents fear will wipe out some evidence of the city’s evolution. A rezoning of the area to allow for the expansion has already passed the city’s Planning Commission. The 17-acre site is slated for research labs and student housing.

But Columbia already owns some of the properties and has used them for decades. And though the university said it has no plans to tear those down, it has resisted seeking landmark designation, which would provide legal protection.

Other buildings have been rejected for landmarking by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Columbia University did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“They are making assurances, but they are just assurances of the moment,” said Eric K. Washington, a resident and author of “Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem.” “The person making them might be very sincere, but what happens when there is a new administration or a change of mind down the road? Having them landmarked would prevent them from doing what they want with them.”


Prentis Hall

A 1909 former milk pasteurization and bottling plant built in response to food safety advocates’ cries for a cleaner milk process. The white terra-cotta face is designed to convey a sense of purity, and large ground-floor windows let the curious observe the pasteurization process. Currently houses Columbia University art and music studios.

Sheffield Farms Stable

The 1903 building housed horses back when they would deliver milk door-to-door in wagons. Built with white brick in the Second Empire style, it features a mansard roof and placard medallions of stylized horses’ tails. The building is in the national and state registers of historic places. The Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected naming it a landmark, though, and its owner has fiercely resisted selling to Columbia.

Studebaker Building

This striking 1920s Art Deco building was a distribution point and light manufacturing center for the now-defunct car company. The building features a white terra-cotta crown and alternating black and red brickwork, and has seals across the top that still bear the car company logo. Columbia has renovated it and is planning to keep administrative offices there.

12th Avenue track beds

When historian Eric K. Washington first noticed the sign saying Third Avenue by these tracks on 12th Avenue, “I thought I had just wandered off to the East Side in some kind of daydream.” Turns out these tracks date to 1885, when the privately owned Third Avenue Railway Company built an experimental crosstown cable car line.

Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.

Posted Under: Institutional Expansion, Manhattanville

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