Preservationists hope to win landmark status for these three Greenwich St. row house buildings near the corner of Rector St., but a hotelier wants to demolish the one to the right.
By Skye H. McFarlane
The original residents of 96 Greenwich St. could never have imagined this: More than two centuries after its construction, their modest brick home is caught at the center of a battle between a hotelier, a gentleman’s club and a host of preservationists.
When the brick houses at 94, 94 ½ and 96 Greenwich St. were built at the turn of the 19th century, John Adams was president and the White House was still under construction. Closer to home, Greenwich St. was an up-and-coming residential thoroughfare populated by wealthy middle-class merchants, some of whom owned summer homes up north in Greenwich Village.
The houses stood side-by-side next to dozens of others with the same narrow, brick facades three stories high and three windows across sloping roofs, high ceilings and long rectangular floor plans. The buildings’ style, now called “federal row house,” was simple but grand at a time in which most New Yorkers still lived in single-story wooden buildings.
In the 200 years that followed, the three row houses endured many changes that those original residents of the newborn United States could never have envisioned. The sloping roofs were converted into fourth stories and the neighborhood transformed itself many times over. The other houses became parking garages and office buildings. The ground floors of 94, 94 ½ and 96 were gutted and redone repeatedly. They now contain a café, a pizza parlor and an adult club, respectively. Now, with Lower Manhattan rebuilding yet again, preservationists are pressing to landmark the houses to protect them from the onslaught of new development.
“It’s a tangible reminder of 200 years of history that survives despite Robert Moses and Al Qaeda,” said Roger Lang of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, speaking about the row of houses, which sits two blocks east of the West Side Highway and three blocks south of the World Trade Center site. “Their age is important and their rarity is important.”
The conservancy is a non-profit that is not connected to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which will rule on the landmarking question.
In 2004, in conjunction with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the conservancy prepared a report recommending the houses for landmark designation along with 10 other federal row houses scattered throughout Lower Manhattan. Five of the “baker’s dozen” have already been designated as individual landmarks, a status that protects the buildings from demolition and encourages the owners to restore the original look of the exteriors during future renovations.
On Jan. 30, the Landmarks Commission heard testimony on the three buildings. At the same time, the commission agreed to “calendar,” or hold a designation hearing, on the federal houses at 486 and 488 Greenwich St.
The L.P.C. has not yet set a date to rule on 94, 94 ½ and 96, but based on the agency’s calendar, the ruling would not happen until mid-March at the earliest. Because the commission has approved all five of the federal houses that have come before it so far, and because the owners do not oppose landmarking, both Lang and Andrew Berman, executive director of the G.V.S.H.P., think 94 and 94 ½ Greenwich have a good shot at achieving landmark status.
The fate of 96 Greenwich St., however, is less certain. First, the ownership of the building is in dispute. Prolific hotel developer Sam Chang claims that one of his many corporations, Greenwich Hospitality L.L.C., owns the structure outright. However, the building’s tenant, Pussycat Lounge proprietor Robert Kremer, claims that his lease gives him right of first refusal, and therefore an ownership stake in the building. The Chang group, which has already purchased the air rights to 94 and 94 ½ Greenwich, would like to demolish 96 Greenwich to enlarge the footprint of one of the two hotels it is building on the block (at 98 Greenwich St. and 99 Washington St.).
Regardless of who owns the building, Lang said that the L.P.C. will have to make a determination about 96 Greenwich based strictly on whether or not the building retains enough of its original look and material to merit a landmark designation.
“Partly it’s about respecting your elders and trying to make sure that as Lower Manhattan rebuilds and transforms itself that we don’t lose these reminders of our past variety, even if at the moment they may not be used in the most desirable way,” Lang said, referring to the Pussycat Lounge, whose entertainment lineup includes rock bands, exotic dancers, burlesque performers and circus acts.
Kremer, who is in favor of landmarking, argued at the hearing that the building is still capable of being restored. Other preservationists testified that every effort should be made to protect all three buildings, since their status as a complete row is part of what makes them unique. The Chang group argued that the facade has been altered too many times to be saved and offered to pay for the restoration of 94 and 94 ½ if the commission allows them to demolish 96.
Preservationists agree with the Chang group that the facade at 96 Greenwich is the most deteriorated and altered of the three buildings. Unlike 94 and 94 ½ , which are thought to retain much of their original Flemish brickwork, 96 Greenwich has had material replaced in several places. A row of windows was added to the building, disrupting the original design. Kremer also removed an earlier set of doors, though he testified that he has kept them intact.
Without more information, Lang and Berman were undecided on whether or not the building has enough historical integrity to be preserved. The Landmarks Conservancy has therefore hired an independent engineer to look more closely at the building. Lang said the Chang group has also hired an independent inspector. The experts will determine whether a full restoration at 96 Greenwich is a realistic possibility and then report back to their separate employers and the L.P.C. by the end of the month.
If his expert determines the façade to be too far gone, Lang said he would likely support the Chang proposal to pay for the restoration of the other two buildings. Either way, Lang and Berman said they would rely on the commission to make a well-considered judgment.
“I think it’s great that the commission is continuing to take these up,” Berman said, adding that preservationists would like to see additional federal row houses landmarked in the future. “I’m very much looking forward to the day when we can put these 13 houses to rest and move on to the next 13.”