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Volume 20, Number 34 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Jan. 11 - 17, 2008

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Photo courtesy of the Landmarks Preservation Commission

Wedding hall may cruise into Cunard Building

By Patrick Hedlund

The maritime history of one of Lower Manhattan’s most celebrated buildings could soon provide the backdrop for weddings and other special events thanks to a new plan aimed at converting the Financial District space for private functions.

The dormant Great Hall in the historic Cunard Building at 25 Broadway will again pulse with activity if a proposal by a high-end catering company gains support for a license to operate there.

The plan for the building along the “Canyon of Heroes” parade route is by the Backal Hospitality Group — which counts clients such as the Waldorf-Astoria and the Plaza Hotel. The group seeks to utilize the ornate hall for special events such as corporate gatherings and other social functions, said C.E.O. Arthur F. Backal.

He presented his plan before Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee last week to fanfare from members, who delighted in the idea of reviving the former post office at 25 Broadway and unanimously recommended approval of a catering license for the site.

“I’d love to see the building used again,” Ro Sheffe, committee chairperson, said of the 22-story edifice near Bowling Green’s historic “Steamship Row.” “The architecture is lovely, and it would be a wonderful asset to the neighborhood.”

“The Great Hall at 25 Broadway,” as the project has been termed, calls for catering operations to be permitted at the site for a wide range of events, from corporate luncheons to private ceremonies. “I think it’s going to be great for the public to see it again,” Backal said at the meeting. “It’s really ideal for what we’re going to be using it for.”

The 1921 building, designed by architects Benjamin Wistar Morris and Carrere & Hastings, traces its lineage to the world-renowned Cunard Steamship Line, which once operated a ticketing facility in the Great Hall. The lobby and hall contain nautically themed frescoes, sculptures and murals by famed artists Carl Jennewein, Ezra Winter and Barry Faulkner, said Roger Lang, director of public affairs for the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a non-profit organization.

“This is no ordinary lobby or hall — this is as opulent as you could imagine,” Lang said. “It bespeaks the great wealth and confidence of the Cunard Line at the time.”

The Great Hall was vacated in 1971 before the U.S. Postal Service began operating out of the space in 1974, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which landmarked the building in 1995. But postal services ended there a few years back, Sheffe noted, keeping the “grand architectural marvel” in disuse since.

Backal intends to use the charms of the hall’s seafaring past as a selling point for the discerning client, after first being shown the space back in 2006.

“The design… that was created when the building was first designed and built is just so unique compared to other places in the area, and almost worldwide,” said the high-end caterer, who has been in the business for 24 years. “You don’t see many with the kind of detail this offers.”

The location will certainly draw customers of a finer taste, and Backal is eager to make it one of the “best that anyone’s ever seen.”

“I had recognized that the space was very much one of a kind and needed to be brought back for the public to enjoy it.”

Lang hopes that through its use, the operator will be inclined to polish the historic site to restore some of its former grandeur — something Backal insisted would occur with renovations. (The caterer said he already had an informal meeting with the Landmarks Preservation Commission regarding his proposal.)

Although Lang and Sheffe both support the plan, eventually they would like to see everyone flowing through its doors — not just newlyweds or corporate bigwigs.

“When we first heard about this conversion, I think everyone had a smile on their face, but it was a wistful smile,” Sheffe added, noting that any restoration would prove positive. “The overriding interest is in preserving that wonderful architectural jewel.”


Patrick@DowntownExpress.com

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