New shop is latest to alter facade on St. Mark’s

By Ashley Winchester

In between the carved columns, ornately worked fire escapes and traditional stoops of the East Village brownstones, a chrome-and-white-walled store sets itself apart from the St. Mark’s Pl. scenery. Australian Homemade ice cream is the latest store to move into St. Mark’s Pl., where the recent trend has been toward modernizing rather than preserving traditional East Village storefronts. Down the street, floor-to-ceiling windows and a wooden sidewalk café mark another modernized building facade.

“It just doesn’t feel like the neighborhood anymore,” St. Mark’s resident Anna Sawaryn said. “They’re taking away from what the neighborhood is. It just doesn’t feel like New York.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, began a project this summer to document and research buildings in the East Village for historic preservation. Designating an area as an historic district typically requires many months of research and preparation before being proposed to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for consideration. The commission then reviews the proposal and determines the buildings’ eligibility in several public hearings, followed by a vote in a public meeting.

“There has been a very unfortunate trend of storefront alterations on St. Mark’s Pl. that have been really insensitive to the historic fabric of some very special 19th century buildings,” Berman said. “It’s very unfortunate that this was done, since storefronts can easily be accommodated without destroying the historic fabric of buildings. We are currently taking a look at and working on buildings in the East Village that are worthy of designation and protection that would certainly prevent things like this from happening.”

The landmarking process can take from several months to several years to complete. However, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation is hoping to speed up the process by providing L.P.C. with much of the initial research to put a designation into effect.

“It’s not a quick or easy process,” Berman said. “In addition to documentation of the area, landmark designation requires a significant lobbying campaign from members of the community.”

Sawaryn has been working with the Coalition to Save the East Village to landmark many of the building facades along St. Mark’s Pl.

After an area is landmarked, Landmarks must approve in advance any alteration, reconstruction, demolition or new construction affecting any designated building. Yet, the more disturbed a historical area becomes, the more difficult it is to preserve in the long run, Sawaryn said.

“[Stores] used to just move into buildings a few years ago and leave things the way they were,” she said. “Right now, if the landlord doesn’t have a problem with the alterations, tenants can do whatever they want. By the time we’re designated as a historical place there won’t be anything left. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place in protecting these beautiful facades.”

Currently, two sites on St. Mark’s are individually designated as landmarks. The Daniel Leroy House, at 20 St. Mark’s Pl., and the German American Shooting Society Clubhouse, at 12 St. Mark’s Pl., are the only buildings in the area so designated, Christabel Gough, of the Society for the Architecture of the City, said.

“There is a huge amount of competition for new historic districts to be created,” Gough said. “[The East Village] is just barely beginning to be considered as a historic district, but it ought to be done. It’s a very beautiful and historic area, and some of the changes that have been made to it have been thoughtless.”