Volume 21, Number 1 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | May 16 - 22, 2008

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

This ain’t no disco
David Byrne looks at one of the Battery Maritime Building’s columns, which will help generate a gong sound in his sound installation project. Below, the Battery Maritime Building.

David Byrne hooks up Battery Building to an organ

By Julie Shapiro

David Byrne stood in the crumbling Great Hall on the second floor of the Battery Maritime Building and pointed out musical instruments.

Blow air through the exposed pipes, he said, and they turn into a chorus of alto flutes. Send vibrations through the steel girders that support a row of vaulted skylights, and the girders hum. Strike one of the peeling metal columns, and it dings like a gong.

Byrne stood in the center of the hall, where the keyboard of an old pipe organ will soon allow the public to control all those sounds and more. The music installation, called “Playing the Building,” is opening May 31.

“It sounds really simple, but it’s kind of a lot of fun,” said Byrne, who started the Talking Heads. “It’s more than fun — it’s awe-inspiring.”

Byrne joined Downtown politicians Monday to explain his project, which the city hopes will draw people to the Battery Maritime Building and onto the ferries bound for Governors Island. To that end, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation also opened a waiting room for ferry passengers, assisted by a $500,000 grant from Borough President Scott Stringer.

The ferries for Governors Island start up for the season on May 31 and run hourly Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through October. Once a military fort and later a prison, Governors Island is now home to abandoned buildings and parkland. Fifty thousand people visited the island last year, to bike, picnic or play Downtown Little League games. GIPEC hopes to top 75,000 visitors this year and is planning a concert series, a film festival and historic tours to reel people in.

Byrne hopes his installation will infuse the landmarked Battery Maritime Building with some musical fun. People of all ages and levels of musical ability can participate with equal success, he said.

Whether the building’s natural sounds count as music “depends on your definition of music,” said Byrne, who partnered with Creative Time for the project. The notes range in pitch and volume, at the will of whoever sits down at the keyboard. Each key will act on a different part of the building, producing a different sound, all naturally, without microphones or speakers.

“It’s not tuned perfectly — you can’t sit down to play Bach,” Byrne said.

The Battery Maritime Building’s age and character makes the music possible. The building’s exposed metal pipes and girders are what make the installation work.

“If they’re all sheetrocked, if they’re made pristine, there’s nothing left to make a sound with,” Byrne said.

Avi Schick, chairperson of GIPEC and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, was all jokes and smiles at the event. After Stringer admitted that his entire staff wanted to come to the press conference to meet Byrne, Schick told the group that he only showed up because he was hoping to see Stringer. More seriously, Schick praised the public-private partnerships that worked together to spur the island’s development.

Byrne, who now has short white hair, did not act like someone who had performed in sold-out arenas, speaking nervously before a crowd of 30 people while shifting his weight and clasping and unclasping his hands. He joked about the history of Governors Island — that when it was a prison for soldiers who went AWOL, everyone hoped to get sent there, where they could enjoy beautiful views and spend their time raking leaves — and he also joked about Governors Island’s future. Everyone keeps asking him what’s happening with island’s redevelopment, but he doesn’t know any more than anyone else.

“I tell them [it’ll be] a Trump casino, a huge resort,” Byrne said, “and they go, ‘No!’”

A Trump resort may not be coming to Governors Island, but it’s not clear what will. Development of the island, stalled for years, appeared to take a step forward last December when GIPEC selected a winner of a design contest. The winning plan, by West 8, included free wooden bicycles, manmade hills, a ballet school, an art gallery and a culinary institute.

But those plans aren’t getting off the ground just yet.

GIPEC will start seriously designing the 40 acres of park space on Governors Island in the late summer or early fall, said Leslie Koch, president of GIPEC. She expects to have a master plan by next year, which may or may not include the features of West 8’s whimsical design, inspired by dragonflies.

“They’re exciting concepts — but that was a competition,” Koch said. “When we do the real design, we’ll have a better idea.”

GIPEC already has funding to design the island’s makeover, but Koch estimates that she will need an additional $200 million for construction. She will look to the city and the state for the money.

This summer, GIPEC is adding ferries to and from the island on Fridays (10 a.m. – 5 p.m.) and is extending the Saturday and Sunday ferry times, with the last one leaving the island at 7 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. For large events, like the New York Philharmonic Concert on July 5, GIPEC will run extra ferries to transport what they hope will be crowds of people.

Meanwhile, preparation work is also moving forward on the Dermot Company’s plans to refurbish and develop the inside of the Battery Maritime Building. Dermot plans to top the historic building with a 150-room glass hotel to fund the $150 million project.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the addition earlier this year, after Dermot agreed to restore four historic cupolas, which will partially screen the four new floors of glass.

In addition to building the hotel, Dermot and the Poulakakos family would preserve the interior of the building, including the Great Hall where Byrne’s installation will soon open. Alex Adams, the project manager, sees the hall as “Downtown’s living room,” a place people can buy a cup of coffee or a sandwich and chat with friends — like “Bryant Park under glass.” At night, people could rent the hall for private functions.

With Landmarks approval in hand, the Dermot Company is now working on an environmental review as part of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. They hope to kick the project back to the community for comment in late summer or early fall, Adams said. If all goes well, Dermot could start construction in spring 2009 and reopen the building two years later.

Dermot will seek private financing for the project next year after receiving all city approvals and negotiating a lease. Adams hopes the financial markets will have stabilized by then, but either way, he said, lenders and equity partners have already expressed interest in the project. While the Battery Maritime Building’s location near the F.D.R. Drive and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel entrance could make a use like a market difficult, “For the uses we’re proposing, I think it’s a very nice location,” Adams said.

At the tour Monday, the politicians also had nothing but optimism for the Battery Maritime Building and the island.

“Governors Island is Manhattan’s last frontier,” Stringer said. He sees the new waiting room as an entry point to attract new visitors.

The 3,000-square-foot waiting room will be open year-round. When the ferries are running — May 31 through October — a National Parks Service ranger will be on hand to answer questions. Off-season, the waiting room will have information and updates about the island.

Stringer is also giving another $500,000 to build fenders at Governors Island’s piers. The fenders will protect ships when they dock, allowing historic vessels to visit Governors Island in summer 2009, Koch said.

As Byrne described how “Playing the Building” will work, he got more and more humble.

“It seems like such an obvious idea, it’s almost not an idea,” he said. “It’s in the execution.”

“Playing the Building” will be open to the public on the second floor of the Battery Maritime Building May 31 through Aug. 10 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m.





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