Hotel opposition sells C.B. 2 on saving Merchant’s House

The Merchant’s House Museum, at 29 E. Fourth St.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Neighbors and friends of the Merchant’s House Museum, the 1832 landmarked family house just west of Bowery, turned out in force on Monday to oppose a proposal to build a nine-story hotel adjacent to the landmark.

Despite earnest statements by the hotel’s developer and the architect that their utmost priority would be to maintain the integrity of the 180-year-old building, everyone who testified at the May 14 Community Board 2 Landmarks Committee meeting said, “No.”

“Our building is too fragile to take any more damage,” said Nick Nicholson, chairperson of the Merchant’s House board of trustees, referring to cracks and other damage sustained during the ongoing construction on E. Fourth St. on the city’s Third Water Tunnel project.

“We suffered $1 million in damage and we almost closed. As sure as I know anything, you cannot prevent damage to the building from anything you build next door,” said Nicholson.

Councilmember Rosie Mendez, who represents the neighborhood, said she had a responsibility to do whatever is possible to preserve the historic building at 29 E. Fourth St.

“I’ve already voted for the city to spend just shy of $1 million to replace gutters and the stoop,” she said of the Merchant’s House Museum. Mendez also said the proposed nine-story hotel was too tall for a site adjacent to the old four-story house.

Mendez said that her concern for the Merchant’s House prompted her to ask the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to defer a hearing and a vote on the project until June 5.

The Monday hearing was the second of its kind, intended to develop a community board recommendation to the L.P.C. on the hotel project.

Two weeks earlier, Board 2’s Landmarks Committee heard from Constantine Fotos, a development partner for the proposed hotel, and Ed Carroll, the architect, but no one had appeared in opposition.

Fotos told the Monday meeting that he had spoken with Pi Gardiner, the museum’s executive director, about the hotel project. But Gardiner and Nicholson insisted that they heard about the project only 10 days earlier, a few days after the first Landmarks Committee hearing.

Sean Sweeney, co-chairperson of the Landmarks Committee, said later that the Monday hearing convinced the committee about the extreme fragility of the house.

“We voted to reverse part of the original resolution that we passed two weeks ago,” Sweeney said.

The committee decided to recommend that any new building not be taller than the four-story historic house.

“We’re also concerned about damage and would like the developer to pay for removal and storage of vulnerable artifacts during construction,” he said. Sweeney also said the developer should be liable for any lost income if the museum has to close during construction.

“A nice little tax-deductible 501 C-3 donation would be nice,” he said.

The committee, however, did not object to the demolition of the existing garage, which would be replaced by the hotel.

“It’s used to store hot dog vending carts,” Sweeney observed.

The Historic House Trust, organized in 1989 to help the city Parks Department maintain historic buildings, mostly within city parks, owns the Merchant’s House, which has been designated both an exterior and interior landmark.

Jonathan Mellon, who works for the Historic House Trust, told the Monday hearing that the hotel project could potentially damage one of the city’s most important landmarks.

In addition to approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the hotel project would also require a zoning change.

Stuart Klein, representing the nine-story condo at 25 E. Fourth St., said the hotel project would need a zoning variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals.

“I’m not going to bet on the B.S.A. approval of the project,” said Klein.

He also cautioned friends of the Merchant’s House about depending on the city Department of Buildings to monitor construction safety.

“The department doesn’t have the means or the manpower to monitor anything,” Klein said.

Klein cited old buildings at 39 Bond St., 89 Bowery and 123 Hester St. that collapsed or sustained severe damage during the construction of new adjacent buildings.

The Merchant’s House, where three generations of the Seabury-Tredwell family lived, was originally part of a group of row houses on the north side of E. Fourth St. But the houses on either side were demolished, leaving it extremely vulnerable.

Amanda Davis, a staff member of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said on Monday that the hotel plans that call for underpinning the cellar of the Merchant’s House present unacceptable risks for a 180-year-old building.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, recalled that, in 2002, a renovation project caused severe damage to Annie Leibovitz’s building, at Greenwich and W. 11th Sts., in the Greenwich Village Historic District.

“The Merchant’s House is incredibly fragile inside and out,” Bankoff said.