Volume 19 Issue 51 | May 4 -10, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

Architect and developer Joseph Pell Lombardi outside the Mohawk and Whalebone buildings, which he converted to condos.

Things are finally cooking at Tribeca’s Mohawk

By Skye H. McFarlane

The building at the northeast corner of Duane and Hudson Sts. is best known as the former home of the Mohawk Electric Company. More recently the Mohawk, as it is often called, had fallen into use as a storage facility, its 1891 façade marred by neglect and graffiti.

But looking at the Mohawk’s newly restored face, it is easy to believe that the building was originally built to house a confectioner company. The Mohawk’s creamsicle-colored brick is frosted with russet sandstone stripes and curling Ionic capitals. What’s inside will soon be good enough to eat, too, as restaurateur David Bouley will finally be setting up shop in the building’s ground floor.

“So many buildings in this area, like this one, were built for utilitarian uses,” said Joseph Pell Lombardi, who plays a triple role as the preservationist, architect and developer at the Mohawk site. “But you can tell that this building was built specifically for a company [Wood & Selick confectioners] with a lot of pride in itself.”

Lombardi has had his eye on the Mohawk building and the neighboring Whalebone building at 161 Duane St. since the mid-1990s. Back then he was outbid by Bouley, who planned to turn the Mohawk into a flagship restaurant with a cooking school on the upper floors. However, 9/11 was followed closely by the death of Bouley’s business partner, Warner LeRoy. The development plans stalled.

In late 2002, Lombardi arranged to purchase Bouley’s interest in the buildings. The two structures had long traveled as a pair through real estate transactions. Lombardi decided to take the union a step further, joining the interiors of the buildings and converting the complex into residential condos. Like many of Lombardi’s projects, the job required him to do preservation on the exterior and architecture on the interior.

On the Mohawk building, a solid cleaning was all that was needed to revive most of the brickwork. The softer sandstone features, however, had been badly weathered and needed to be replaced in some places, re-carved in others. At the Whalebone building, Lombardi’s crews brought the deep-red brick façade out from under a thick layer of white paint. They repainted the Whalebone’s eponymous blue and white sign and restored the cast iron storefronts of both buildings.

Inside the buildings, Lombardi installed modern appliances, elevators and new wood floors around the buildings’ original beams and columns. The new condos look out over Duane Park and the Tribeca West Historic District through dozens of small, period windows.

Lombardi said that as an architect, Tribeca’s low-rise character is very appealing. Even though the Mohawk and Whalebone reach just eight and six stories, respectively, they have expansive views and bright open spaces. Clearly this attribute was not lost on the real estate market, as all but one of the condos in what is now called the Mohawk Atelier have already sold — at more than $3 million apiece. Half of the new residents have already moved in.

“The thing that makes me the happiest is how handsome it turned out,” Lombardi said of the project. “This building really announces Tribeca and it used to announce it in a way that was beautiful, but shabby. Now it’s back to the way that it originally was.”

So thorough was the restoration that the buildings at first glance look like 21st-century replicas rather than 19th-century landmarks. Roger Byrom, chairperson of the Community Board 1 Landmarks Committee, said that restoration projects in historic districts often look a bit too-new when they are first unveiled.

“It’s a lovely corner building, but it will benefit from living a little bit,” Byrom said of the Atelier. Back in 2003, when Lombardi was seeking approval for the project, Byrom expressed concerns that restoring the painted Whalebone sign might make the building look too much like a glossy, theme-park version of history. Byrom still thinks that the sign looks a tad “Disney-esque,” but he is grateful that the buildings have finally been revived. Time and weather, he said, will give the structures back their historic patina.

“In 10 years time, it will be really nice, weathered down. It will look more contextual with the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a good piece of work and we wish them all well.”

Lombardi was always determined to bring back the Whalebone sign, which had lingered on the building’s brickwork underneath the white paint. The sign, he said, is a visual reminder of the building’s unique history. Built in 1843 as a family home, the structure was later the long-time site of a whalebone cutting business. Before the age of plastics, whalebone was used as a semi-flexible material in everything from buggy whips to hoop skirts. Before A.J. Vetter closed up his whalebone business at 161 Duane St. in 1920, he was believed to be the last working whalebone cutter in the country.

Under the whalebone shop in the 1890s, the building housed Ye Olde Tavern. More than a century later, the ground floor is once again set to serve food and drink. Though Bouley sold the buildings to Lombardi in 2002, he never lost interest in the space. Bouley already anchors three other corners on the block, with his restaurant Danube across the street at 30 Hudson, his signature Bouley restaurant at 120 W. Broadway, and his Bouley Bakery and Marketplace at 130 W. Broadway.

In February, Bouley finalized a deal to buy the ground floor and basement of the Atelier, as well as a fifth-floor apartment in the building for his personal use. Both Lombardi and Byrom said they were glad that Bouley’s long-delayed plans to occupy the space have finally come to fruition.

“It was great that he got what he wanted and I got what I wanted in the same building,” said Lombardi.

Bouley was out of town and could not be reached for comment. However, the restaurateur was all smiles at a March community board meeting. At the meeting, the board’s Tribeca Committee voted overwhelmingly to support Bouley’s application for a liquor license in the Mohawk space. Bouley said then that he plans to move his signature Bouley restaurant into the Mohawk, relocate Bouley Bakery to the current Bouley space and expand the Bouley Market and Upstairs eatery at 130 Broadway. He is shooting for a fall 2007 opening at the Mohawk.

“I’m really encouraged that David Bouley is back in there,” Byrom said. “This is how it was originally supposed to be. It’s like we’re back in the mid-1990s again.”

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