I was surprised by the impassioned-- dare I say a wee bit hysterical-- tone of the Ourousoff piece in the Times earlier last week. It was on the proposed demolition of several buildings belonging to St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, including the singularly unmistakable "O'Toole Building," at top. I gradually realized the actual thrust of the article is rather alarming: permission from Landmarks and the City to raze a group of buildings within a historic district.
The piece should have set up the danger of that precedent much more clearly– that real message was seriously hampered by the O'Toole building focus. Most readers, including this one I admit, thought "it looks like suburban mall parking. And the problem is...?" Essentially, we all got waylaid razzing that truly unlovable white elephant on Seventh Avenue and missed the point: historic districts are created to preserve an urban fabric, a collection of buildings that might not include any individual landmarks but taken collectively, mean something. Ourousoff rightly says,
The designation ...was intended to protect humble structures like these...the city’s character is rooted in the small grain of everyday life.The O'Toole building is part of a series of 14 (!) structures Albert C. Ledner created for the National Maritime Union. His other notable Maritime work in NYC is what is now the Maritime Hotel on Ninth Ave. The late and lamented (by some) 2 Columbus Circle, third pic down, is NOT by Ledner, but it could be!
I am no fan of Ledner's (btw. an article on the house he designed for himself, in New Orleans, here and some other images of Ledner's work in Regional Modernism's Flickr pages) but I do have a soft spot for the Maritime. I was interested that the article refers to these buildings as "expressive modernism." That was a new term to me. If pressed I would have said the swooping, evocative structural form of the TWA terminal= expressive modernism; the decorative portholes-aplenty of these three= Lollipop modernism. I look at these buildings and see Courreges and white gogo boots...possibly some Islamic decorative notes too, especially on 2 Columbus.
The problem in this particular Landmarks case is no one cares a whit about any of these structures-- a motley group that includes a wan 1920s nursing facility and a bleak 1980s hulk. Take a look at the Municipal Art Society's Flickr set of all of 'em. I realize this is a dangerous incursion on Landmarks.... but one could argue the St Vincent's set doesn't add a thing to the Greenwich Village Historic District. I'm not sure how much they embody the "city's character" the first place...
Ironic that I'm so unconcerned about the St. Vincent's group since I really felt the tragedy of what is now a blighted stretch of 6th Avenue in Chelsea. When, after the earlier unlandmarking of an officially landmarked building the entire character of the streetscape was wiped away.... more on that next post.
images of 2 columbus from Tom Fletcher's NY Architecture
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Was it The Art of Memory Matt who left me this wonderful link, the Masterpiece Next Door? I envy the focus, diligence and clarity of purpose of this guy: he is documenting and photographing each building on the New York Landmarks list...
Speaking of clarity of purpose-- I thought I'd be returning to blogging with some, but alas I don't think so. So much for the notions of rebranding and repositioning.