Positively South Village: L.P.C. votes to expand historic district

A map by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation showing the progress in landmarking the South Village. Still not landmarked is the third and final section.
A map by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation showing the progress in landmarking the South Village. Still not landmarked is the third and final section.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  The South Village is where Bob Dylan gave his earliest performances, and where he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Naturally, it’s the landscape of the new Coen Brothers film about that era, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” though the Coens manage to make it seem extra gritty.

It’s where Italian immigrants built a vibrant community, and where cappuccino first started to flow in America. Its streets and alleyways, taverns and tenements, cafes and parks were where the Beats roamed, caroused and howled.

The South Village also played a starring role in the birth of Off Broadway theater.

Now, adding to its long list of illustrious distinctions, the South Village is also New York City’s newest landmarked district.

On Tuesday, in a unanimous vote, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the designation of the South Village Historic District.

A 13-block area with 250 buildings, it’s the largest landmarks expansion in Greenwich Village since the creation of the original Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969.

The newborn district’s boundaries are roughly W. Fourth St. to the north, LaGuardia Place to the east, W. Houston St. to the south, and Sixth Ave. — or just east of it — to the west.

“This is an extraordinary district,” Robert Tierney, the Landmarks commissioner, said, addressing his fellow commissioners before the vote. “It speaks for itself. … I personally feel this is a slam dunk.”

Landmarking the South Village, he said, will ensure “it becomes known even more widely, and truly protected.”

“Everyone has their own story about the Village,” he added.

As for his own, Tierney recalled how in 1968 he is pretty certain he saw Dylan, wearing a stocking cap, walk by the Little Red School House, at Bleecker St. and Sixth Ave.

“I can’t say for sure it was him, but I think so,” he said.

Similarly, two other commissioners who weren’t raised in New York City added that, for them growing up, Greenwich Village was always synonymous with New York.

The designation is also truly fitting, Tierney said, because “Greenwich Village was really the epicenter of historic preservation — not just around the country, but around the world.”

To the relief of preservationists and local residents, two New York University-owned properties on Washington Square South were included in the final district — N.Y.U. Law School’s Vanderbilt Hall and the Kervorkian Center.

A low-scale, Italianate-style building, Vanderbilt Hall occupies the block bounded by Washington Square South and MacDougal, W. Third and Sullivan Sts. According to Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, without landmarking or zoning protection, a 300-foot-tall tower could be developed on the site.

Just east of Vanderbilt Hall, the university’s Kevorkian Center, on Sullivan St., has a much smaller footprint.

However, to the chagrin of the historic district’s advocates, the blockfront of low-rise buildings on the north side of W. Houston St. between MacDougal and Sullivan Sts. was not included in the final district. L.P.C. felt this strip of 170-year-old buildings simply had been too heavily altered over time — with stoops and cornices removed, floors raised, lintels lopped off or shaved down, windows repositioned and so on — to merit landmark designation.

Back in the summer, Council Speaker Christine Quinn had pushed a seemingly reluctant L.P.C. to include both N.Y.U. sites and the W. Houston St. strip in the district that L.P.C. would consider.

The area was quite affluent in the early 19th century, before the wealthy began moving northward. Starting in the 1850s, the South Village became an immigrant enclave, and existing buildings were repurposed for multifamily dwellings, or new buildings were constructed to house the waves of newcomers. The neighborhood became predominantly Italian. Later on, bohemian artists “rediscovered” the area.

G.V.S.H.P. has been advocating for the South Village’s landmarking for the past 10 years, and made a formal presentation of its proposal to L.P.C. in 2006.

In 2010, L.P.C. — dubbing it an “extension” of the existing Greenwich Village Historic District — designated the area roughly bounded by Sixth Ave. and Seventh Ave. South, and W. Fourth and W. Houston Sts. However, this was only roughly one-third of the South Village district that G.V.S.H.P. had originally proposed.

Tierney noted that with the South Village Historic District’s approval, there are now 2,459 landmarked buildings in the larger Greenwich Village area. He touted the additions to that total made under his tenure as Landmarks chief, noting that he oversaw the designation of the Gansevoort Historic District, as well as additions to the Greenwich Village Historic District in the far West Village.

“I’m personally proud of that record,” he stated.

Of course, it was also Berman and others — such as Jo Hamilton and Florent Morellet, along with Berman, in the case of Gansevoort — who did so much of the heavy lifting on those district designations, making the initial proposals to L.P.C., and seeing them through to their approval.

After the vote, Berman said, “We’re disappointed that that row was removed,” referring to the strip of W. Houston St. buildings. “The good news is that we’re going ahead with seeking a contextual rezoning for that row.”

He also noted that this strip of buildings “can be put into the third phase,” meaning the last phase of G.V.S.H.P.’s original proposal for a larger South Village historic district. That final section is a triangle-shaped area extending south of Houston St. to Watts St., bounded on the east by a line midway between West Broadway and Thompson St., and on the west generally by Sixth Ave.

“We’re not taking a moment’s breath,” Berman said. “We want Community Board 2 to schedule a hearing on Phase III. And,” he added, “if this Landmarks commissioner isn’t interested in it, maybe the next one will be.”

The preservationist said getting the two N.Y.U. sites included in the new district was “an enormous victory.”

“It’s inevitable that, if allowed, N.Y.U. would build a monstrosity on that site,” he said of Vanderbilt Hall. “And this way, it won’t be allowed.”

What about the Kevorkian site? It’s footprint is comparatively smaller.

“But bad things could be done,” Berman warned, “and, with N.Y.U., if bad things could be done, it all likelihood, they eventually would.”

Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for government relations and community engagement, was asked for a response to Berman’s provocative comments, and to the district’s landmarking, in general.

She replied succinctly, “We congratulate the L.P.C. for getting this part of the South Village designated.”

Judith Callet, a longtime member of the Bleecker Area Merchants’ and Residents’ Association, who attended the vote, was happy and smiling at the outcome. Although she now lives at 505 LaGuardia Place, she used to live at The Atrium, formerly known as Mills House No. 1, one of the more significant properties in the new South Village Historic District. It was built as a facility for alcoholic and destitute men to recover and rebuild their lives in rooms specially designed to have good natural ventilation.

However, Callet said, she’s concerned about the impact that new construction on the left-out Houston St. strip could have on the neighboring MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens enclave.

“If that row comes down and high-rises go up, it’ll change the value there,” she said.

In a statement, state Senator Brad Hoylman hailed the commission’s approval of the South Village Historic District.

“The district is undeniably worthy of this important designation, which will help to protect the area’s largely intact, historic architectural landscape and preserve its cultural character,” Hoylman said.

“I will continue to urge the L.P.C. to move forward with the designation of the third and final phase of the South Village Historic District as it was originally proposed in 2006. Given the growing threats to the character and integrity of this final portion, it is important that L.P.C. act quickly.”