LPC Likely to Protect Ladies’ Mile Buildings From Demolition
BY SAM SPOKONY | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 3, 2014 | A developer’s plan to demolish two landmarked 19th-century buildings on West 19th Street was met with stiff resistance by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), following similar opposition by community leaders and preservationists.
Although no official vote was taken at the April 1 hearing, the commissioners were nearly unanimous in their belief that Panasia Estate, the owner of 51 and 53 West 19th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues), should focus on restoring the buildings — which lie within the Ladies’ Mile Historic District — rather than replacing them with a proposed 14-story residential building.
“These are contributing buildings in a historic district, and it’s the obligation of this commission to protect those buildings,” said LPC Chair Robert Tierney, during comments after a presentation by Panasia’s architect, the firm Smith-Miller and Hawkinson. “And to allow them to be lost would, I believe, diminish the district.”
The ornate five-story buildings were both constructed for residential use in 1854, and were converted to commercial and manufacturing use in 1920s, housing the kinds of businesses — such as milliners, embroiderers and furriers — that came to characterize the district. They are mostly vacant at this point, although there is currently a restaurant located on the ground floor of No. 53. Both buildings were included in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District — which spans from West 16th Street to West 24thStreet, roughly between Broadway and Sixth Avenue — when it was designated by the LPC in 1989.
Henry Smith-Miller, the lead architect who pitched the demolition and replacement plan, had attempted to convince the commission that his sleek and slim 14-story building would simply look better than the current buildings, both of whose facades are relatively dilapidated at this point.
“We think this will bring some life and vitality back to the street,” said Smith-Miller, adding that he believed the replacement would do more for the quality of the district than a “simple restoration.”
Tierney, backed by all but one of the nine other commissioners, later responded specifically to that aspect of the pitch by stating that he believed both buildings were still adequately suited for restoration.
“I just haven’t seen anything to show that these buildings are not structurally sound, and that they can’t be repaired and creatively reused,” the LPC chair said.
The commission’s comments were good news for local preservation advocates who attended the April 1 hearing and, before those comments, gave testimony against the proposed demolition.
Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of Community Board 5’s Landmarks Committee, had already passed a March resolution (also approved by the full board) which strongly called on LPC to deny the demolition application. The resolution was, in fact, so strong on that point that it notably did not even include an evaluation of the proposed replacement building.
“We’re urging the applicant to come to his senses and develop a plan to restore, rather than destroy these two buildings,” said Law-Gisiko at the hearing, adding that she “looks forward to working with the applicant on a reasonable restoration plan.
And along with opposing the developer’s plan, Barbara Zay of the Historic Districts Council advocacy group declared in her testimony that allowing the demolition would set a “dangerous” precedent for similarly aging buildings in other historic districts around the city.
Susan Finley, a director of the Flatiron Alliance, agreed, although she worded her concerns a bit more explicitly.
“If you allow this to happen,” Finley told the LPC, “you are signaling to developers that money trumps history. And the next thing we know, developers are going to be looking for ways to take apart this historic district. So please, on behalf of all of us who live and work there, don’t allow it to happen.
She also directed some of the more scathing elements of her testimony towards Smith-Miller and his architectural team.
“19th Street doesn’t need you to bring them back to life,” said Finley. “19th Street is alive and well, as is the entire neighborhood, and that’s thanks to the integrity of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District.”
Another powerful community voice during the hearing was that of Jack Taylor, a longtime preservationist whose advocacy group, the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile District, was instrumental in securing the district’s designation.
Quoting a statement made by the celebrated structural engineer Robert Silman when he was honored by the Historic Districts Council in 2006, Taylor told the commission, “ ‘Almost no building today is beyond salvaging. There are ways of working around any damage, of reusing any building that seems hopeless, as there’s sufficient will and community support.’ ”
Referring to 51 and 53 West 19th Street, Taylor added a closing thought of his own to that quote.
“The community support is here, commissioners,” he said. “The will is up to you and the applicant.”
At this point, it’s unclear whether Panasia will now tell their architect to reverse course and make plans to restore the two buildings, given the extreme likelihood of the LPC eventually voting to deny the demolition application.
Panasia did not respond to a request for comment.