Twin adjoining buildings at 827 and 831 Broadway, Image LPC.
Attorney for owner threatened to seek demolition through a hardship application should landmarks designate the property and not permit a visible addition. At its meeting on October 17, 2017, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing on the possible individual landmarks designation of two twin adjoining buildings at 827 and 831 Broadway. Completed in 1867, the buildings were designed by architect Griffith Thomas for tobacco-company heir Pierre Lorillard in an Italian palazzi-inspired design. Built in marble with cast-iron piers and columns, the buildings represent a transitional period in Griffith’s career, before he fully embraced the use of cast iron.
In the years following the Second World War, as the art world’s point of focus shifted from Paris to New York, the building became associated with Abstract Expressionism and the informal affiliation of artists known as the New York School. Willem de Kooning, among the most significant of the era’s painters, moved into 831 Broadway in 1958, his last New York City residence before moving to East Hampton. Biographers attribute experiments in tone conducted by de Kooning in the studio to the quality of light found there. Museum of Modern ART curator William S, Rubin occupied a loft in 831 Broadway, where he displayed a collection of Abstract Expressionist art, and hosted gatherings where members in the art world mixed with eminent figures in other fields. Painters Elaine de Kooning, Paul Jenkins, Jules Olitsky and Larry Poons all lived and worked in the buildings during fertile periods of their careers.
The buildings are owned by BH Caerus Broadway LLC, a partnership between Quality Capital and the Caerus Group, which purchased the property in 2015. Landmarks added the properties to its calendar in September of 2017.
Executive Director of the De Kooning Foundation, Amy Schichtel, spoke in support of designations, and said 831 Broadway was among the first commercial loft spaces to be occupied by “pioneering artists” seeking space and high ceilings. Schichtel stated that the “beautiful quality of light” in the space was essential to de Kooning’s work, and is reflected in the important luminescent paintings he created there. Schichtel said the creativity of Abstract Expressionism was accelerated by the City’s “unique visual landscape, with its mix of old and new, and areas of light-filled low-rise-buildings,” and cautioned against removing “cultural examples from our past.”
Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation said that his organization had submitted a Request for Evaluation for the properties to Landmarks in 2016. After the request was rejected, the preservationist organization submitted additional research as well as letters from elected officials, and the application was accepted. He said the GVSHP was spurred by news that the owners intended to demolish the buildings and replace them with a 300-foot-tall tower. Berman called the buildings “architectural stunners” that served as “an almost unparalleled nexus of art world activity.”
Paula Poons, a resident of the building and wife to painter Larry Poons, said she and her husband had striven to keep alive the tradition of artistic exchange and interaction in the building through gatherings in their loft. She enthused about the quality of light in the building, shared memories of Paul Jenkins, and said the properties should be designated to preserve their cultural significance.
Council Member Rosie Mendez pressed Landmarks to quickly designate the buildings, and testified that they had great “commercial, historical, and architectural significance.”
Numerous area residents and preservation advocates spoke at the hearing to lend their support to designation, and decrying the threat of development in the community.
Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that State Senators Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman, Borough President Gale Brewer, the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Municipal Art Society had communicated their support for designation to the Commission. She said the Commission had also received many emails in support from individuals.
Greenberg Traurig attorney Jay Segel, representing the owners, said they had purchased the two buildings, along with another structure for $60 million, in anticipation of redeveloping the lots with a 14-story commercial tower. Segel said the owners had retained architects and engineers, and underwent the DOB objections process, when they received notice of Landmarks’ intention to add the buildings to its calendar two weeks before Buildings approved the redevelopment plans.
Because the owners paid “redevelopment prices” for the properties, Segel said his clients would meet the standards for a hardship application if the designation was approved, and would be entitled to demolish the buildings. He stated that they were willing to “avoid this path,” and, if the properties are designated, would propose to build additions that that would be “attractive, appropriate, and would help the public read the cultural significance of the buildings,” while allowing the owners “a reasonable return” on their investment.
The architect retained by the owners for the planned redevelopment, Jordan Rogove, of DXA Studio, testified that that the buildings were “a place of tremendous cultural significance,” Rogove claimed the work to be proposed would help lift the building from “obscurity,” raising awareness of its role in American cultural history. He said the “unique circumstances” would make a visible vertical enlargement appropriate.
Srinivasan expanded on the buildings’ history with Landmarks leading up to the hearing. She stated that the Commission’s research department had studied the buildings in 2016, and had determined them not to rise to the level of an individual landmark. After receiving materials related to the buildings’’ cultural history from GVSHP, further research was conducted into the buildings’ “unique” and “amazing” history. She said the buildings captured a very significant cultural moment in the City, which designation could preserve and highlight.
Srinivasan encouraged commissioners to think about the testimony of the owners’ representatives, and consider what sort of development might be appropriate for the site if it were designated.
Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said the New York art scene of the post-World War II era was an incredibly important time to define and memorialize. Shamir-Baron further commented that artists were certainly attracted to the buildings for their beauty, and functioned as their “first stewards.” Commissioner Devonshire was intrigued by the proto-cast-iron facade, and said that even if the buildings did not reach the level of individual landmark quality in its architecture, it was “absolutely worthy” for its role in the City’s cultural history.
Srinivasan said the Commission would vote on designation in November of 2017.
LPC: 827-831 Broadway Buildings, 827-831 Broadway, MN (LP-2594) (Oct. 17, 2017).
By:Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).