Industrial past key to future W. Chelsea historic district

March 31, 2008 at 11:13 pm Leave a comment

In 1912, much like today, West Chelsea experienced a building boom.

On 11th Avenue, the Otis Elevator Company started constructing a seven-story, block-long monolith to house a service facility for the elevators it manufactured in Yonkers. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began to excavate for a massive terminal warehouse, to cover 25th to 27th Sts. from 11th to 13th Aves. And on 25th St. and 11th Ave., inventor Simon Zinn was planning to fill the block with a 10-story building “for the manufacture of metal novelties,” reported the New York Times.

But these buildings went up in the name of industry—not as palatial space: Otis came there to repair the elevators it manufactured, and the E.R. Merrill Spring Company made parts for automobiles and Sherman tanks on W. 27th St. After 1924, a new elevated rail line was built due to outcry over pedestrian deaths from passing freight trains. Many buildings—like the Starrett-Lehigh Building, a 2.2 million-square-foot railroad freight building at 601 W. 26th St.— received shipments on the third floor.

A collection of buildings like these may seem unlikely to constitute a historic district, as they are not the Clement Clarke Moore era-brownstones seen in the Chelsea Historic District. But the Landmarks Preservation Commission moved closer last week to approving a West Chelsea Historic District, from 25th St. heading north to the southern edge of 28th St. A few months after coming in second place on the real estate blog Curbed’s list of New York’s hottest new neighborhoods, the proposed district was placed on the LPC’s calendar for serious consideration.

The proposal was born from years of work by local preservationists, including State Sen. Tom Duane, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Edward Kirkland of Community Board 4. Recently, all sounded optimistic that the new designation would go through, but also expressed sadness that some of the area’s “historic resources” still sit unprotected. And so far, opposition even from developers has been muted, perhaps because landmark laws offer little protection that would prevent residential conversion of the former warehouses’ interiors.

Th district has been a long-held dream of local advocates, especially Kirkland, co-chair of CB4’s Landmarks Committee and a longtime board member of the Historic Districts Council. “I was the person who invented this district,” he told Chelsea Now. “I brought it up to Board 4 more than 10 years ago.” The idea was thrown out, Kirkland added, throughout the 1990s, as Chelsea became more chic and the board considered converting some buildings for affordable housing. “But it didn’t come to a boil until the West Chelsea rezoning,” Kirkland said.

As part of that 2005 rezoning, which allowed for extensive residential development, Board 4 and Quinn secured a commitment from the Department of City Planning to mandate that the legally required listing of “historic resources,” for the re-zoning’s federal environmental impact statement (FEIS), include a sketch of a proposed district. That list identified 17 buildings as eligible for landmarking, as well as numerous others of significance, including the Hess Brothers Confectionary Factory on W. 30th St.; W. & J. Sloane Warehouse and Garage at 527-541 W. 29th St.; Cornell Ironworks, a.k.a., Standard Oil Offices, on W. 25th St.; and the Otis Elevator Building.

An early draft of LPC’s memo on the district, obtained by Chelsea Now, begins with the Otis building, citing how it fits the commission’s criteria for architectural and historical significance. “Constructed in 1911-12 to the designs of the noted architectural firm Clinton & Russell, the Otis Elevator Building is significant for its architecture and the historic contributions the company made… Otis is almost synonymous with elevators in New York City, and elevators are one of the three critical factors that contributed to the development of the skyscraper.” Not about to ignore the architecture, LPC notes that “The classical revival style building… featur[es] an impressive deeply projecting denticulated and bracketed cornice, elaborate cast-stone ornament and subtle but elegantly patterned buff colored tapestry brickwork,” calling it “a particularly handsome example.”

None of the above was surprising to local groups and legislators that have been working for years to protect these buildings.

‘It was amazing’

As covered recently by Chelsea Now, LPC designation is the most surefire way to save historic buildings from the wrecking ball—far stronger than listing on state or federal lists of historic places. “New York has the nation’s strongest [preservation] laws,” LPC spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon said earlier this year. “Owners of designated buildings have to come to us before they do any work on a building designated as a landmark, or one in a historic district. We can say ‘no’ to an alteration or demolition if we feel it’s inappropriate.” And any developers planning to build within LPC-designated historic districts have to work with the commission, and receive a “Certificate of Appropriateness” for the project.

Chelsea already has a historic district from 19th to 23rd Sts. east of Eighth Avenue, blessed by the LPC 30 years ago; to the south, the newly designated Gansevoort Historic District protects 104 19th-century market buildings. But until now, only a few West Chelsea buildings have received individual designation, including the 1931 Starrett-Lehigh Building, designed by architects Cory & Cory.

According to Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the city’s Historic Districts Council, Starrett-Lehigh was renowned even back then. “It was one of the buildings in a 1932 modernism exhibition that was put on by the Museum of Modern Art,” Bankoff told Chelsea Now.

Other buildings on LPC’s list but not yet designated include the Cornell Iron Works building, the Reynolds Metal Company buildings, the Williams Building, the Otis Elevator building and the New York Terminal Warehouse Company’s Central Stores. The goal of the West Chelsea Historic District is to ensure that at least some of these buildings can be adapted for more current uses instead of torn down to make way for towers with more income-generating floor space.

Kirkland told Chelsea Now that in a white-hot real estate market like Chelsea’s, advocates hoping to preserve historic resources identified in an EIS eventually give up after the Landmarks Preservation Commission declines to consider designation. But in the case, Kirkland added, “Tom Duane and Chris Quinn wouldn’t let it go.”

However, Duane aide Colin Casey and Bankoff both told Chelsea Now that it was Kirkland who kept the flame alive. “Ed took Tom on a tour back in October,” Casey said. “It was amazing. You can see where the trains would go into the buildings on 27th street. Many of the buildings still have these low garages with huge bays and huge doors, for where the High Line would go in.”

Soon after, Kirkland and fellow Board 4 veteran Robert Trentlyon enlisted the support of Save Chelsea, a local preservation group formed in opposition to the General Theological Seminary’s plans for a high-rise residential tower on Ninth Ave. between 20th and 21st Sts. “One of the hopes for the proposed West Chelsea Historic District is that it would break up the massive modernity that’s taking over the neighborhood,” Save Chelsea president Mary Swartz told Chelsea Now in November.

Advocates enlisted veteran preservation expert Anthony Robins and the private preservation group The Society for the Architecture of the City for an independent study of the area that went directly to LPC. “It’s confidential, which is why it’s influential,” Kirkland noted.

‘They can gut if they want to’

The final proposed district is much smaller than the area covered by the FEIS, excluding buildings like the Merrill Spring Company Building and reduced to the southern end of 28th St.

“You never get everything you want,” Kirkland said, adding that he and LPC had also met directly with the owners of the affected buildings.“ They were surprisingly receptive, with just a few exceptions.”

This amenability may be rooted in cool economic facts, given that designation only applies to building facades. Kirkland and Bankoff reminded Chelsea Now that LPC designation would not prevent the buildings’ interior from being converted to residences, condos or high-end offices. The Starrett-Lehigh Building, designated in 1970, now hosts upscale art galleries and offices of private companies like Martha Stewart’s media group, after extensive interior renovations. “As long as the alteration doesn’t change the facade, a building owner can do anything,” Bankoff said. “They can gut the interior if they want to.”

Nonetheless, with millions of square feet potentially at stake, the real estate community has not been entirely silent. Steven Spinola, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, told the New York Sun in February: “I am questioning the common sense of doing something there unless it is exceptionally worthy of landmark consideration… why you would create a district on the perimeter of a major upzoning?”

But to Bankoff, the district is the perfect complement to the aggressive development going on in West Chelsea. “I think the two laws work well together,” he commented.

In agreement was Josh Benson, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, whose organization is itself devoted to preserving a piece of the past—the last remaining fragment of the elevated railway. “Just as we at FHL are transforming a historic resource to modern uses,” he said, “this district will provide important and rich context for all the exciting, major projects in the area, by important architects like Bob Fox, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel.”

Asked about the next step in the process, de Bourbon would say only that “there will be a public hearing, and then we will come to a decision.” Most of those interviewed by Chelsea Now were optimistic that the district will be approved sometime within the year, before any damage can be done to the affected buildings.

“Listen—the area is meritorious,” Bankoff said. “It has a strong sense of place. And it adds to our understanding of New York’s industrial history.”

Chelsea Now

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