BY ANDREW BERMAN | On April 15, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public meeting to present its draft proposed boundaries for a new South Village Historic District. This is a tremendously important step forward that the community fought for years to achieve, and is “Phase II” of the South Village Historic District first proposed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation in 2006.
But in May the “draft” proposed boundaries will become the final proposed boundaries, after which it will be impossible to expand them further. So the next few weeks are critical to ensure that all sites in need of landmark protections are included, and there will still have some work to do.
In understanding how to proceed, it’s important to understand how we got here.
After designating the first phase of the South Village Historic District in 2010, the city halted further progress, in spite of promises to proceed. This most recent advance on “Phase II” is the result of a campaign calling upon the City Council not to approve the recent Hudson Square rezoning — which would increase development pressure upon the neighboring South Village — unless the city also agreed to move ahead with the entire proposed South Village Historic District as well.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn approved the full rezoning for Hudson Square, but got just a partial South Village landmarking commitment from the city. The city agreed to vote, before the end of 2013, on landmarking the remaining section of the South Village north of Houston St., with boundaries to be determined later, and to “survey,” but not designate, the area south of Houston St.
The draft boundaries then presented by L.P.C on April 15 were broad, and include about 85 percent of the non-landmarked properties in the Phase II area we proposed for designation. But some key sites have been noticeably left out, including two New York University sites with enormous development potential.
It’s now or never for preserving these sites, so it’s imperative that we push to get them included in the district. But it is especially incumbent upon Speaker Quinn, who brokered this partial landmarking deal and also led the City Council’s approval last year of N.Y.U.’s massive Village expansion plan, to ensure that these originally proposed sites, including those owned by N.Y.U., are landmarked by the city.
The proposed boundaries do include nearly 250 buildings on almost a dozen blocks, in one of the most endangered and historically rich parts of our neighborhood. The district would protect scores of 19th-century houses and colorfully detailed tenements, and dozens of buildings that housed institutions that profoundly shaped the culture and history of our neighborhood and city. These range from the home of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott on MacDougal St. to the homes of coffeehouses and clubs on Bleecker St. that nurtured the careers of Eugene O’Neill, William Burroughs, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith; from historic businesses like Porto Rico Importing Co., to venerable institutions such as the Children’s Aid Society and the Little Red Schoolhouse.
What all these sites share in common is a modest, human scale; solid, masonry materials; and a tangible connection to the story of how one of America’s most unique and innovative neighborhoods forged its sense of place and identity.
That’s why the exclusion from the proposed historic district of three key sites that share these qualities is so perplexing, and should be corrected. The city eliminated from our proposed boundaries the row of nine 1844 houses forming the entire northern blockfront of Houston St. between MacDougal and Sullivan Sts., as well as N.Y.U.’s Vanderbilt Hall Law School and Kevorkian Center.
The Houston St. houses were built as part of the same development as their next-door neighbors, the landmarked MacDougal Sullivan Gardens. By the early 20th century, the houses had become a center of the South Village’s Italian immigrant community, housing the well-known speakeasy Luigi’s Restaurant and, since 1906, Rafetto’s Pasta. Without inclusion in the historic district, these houses could easily be destroyed for high-rise development that would tower over the South Village and the adjacent, historic MacDougal Sullivan Gardens.
The full-block Vanderbilt Hall on Washington Square South between MacDougal and Sullivan Sts., also excluded, was built in 1950, but quite intentionally looks considerably older. N.Y.U.’s first entirely purpose-built structure on Washington Square, it was the subject of considerable controversy when first proposed, as Villagers began their protracted struggle to protect their neighborhood from large-scale, post-war development and urban renewal.
But as a result of considerable pressure from neighborhood activists, the university limited the height of the new development to four and a half stories, and chose materials and a design that related to the Village’s 19th-century architecture. N.Y.U. also chose an architect, Otto Eggers, who was born and raised in Greenwich Village and, as a member of the New York City Art Commission, had fought to preserve the character of Washington Square. In the post-war years, Eggers would come to be known for swimming against the architectural tide by creating contextual, historicist designs.
In the end, leaders of the Save Washington Square Committee, who originally opposed the construction of Vanderbilt Hall, praised the building’s design when it was completed. Recently, renowned architectural historian Christopher Gray, writing in The New York Times, called Vanderbilt Hall “a neo-Georgian brick miniquadrangle of subtle sophistication,” citing it as one of earliest examples of modern historicist design in New York — an architectural approach once shunned, but which has since gained considerable fashion.
Also excluded is the Kevorkian Center, built in 1972 on Washington Square South just across Sullivan St. from Vanderbilt Hall and designed by Philip Johnson. Called the “dean of American architects,” Johnson was one of the most honored and influential architects of the second half of the 20th century. He designed several controversial buildings for N.Y.U. in the 1960s that are considered among his lesser works, including Bobst Library. But with his final design for the university, he won great praise and admiration for a subtler and more sophisticated design. The stone Kevorkian Center deferred to the neighboring Judson Memorial Hall in scale and materials; architecture critic Paul Goldberger called it an “urbanistic success” with a “powerful monumentality.”
Both these N.Y.U. structures reflect the highly contested development of Washington Square in the post-war era, and are the rare examples of such development building upon rather than destroying the fabric and character of the Village. Without landmark protections, both could also easily be razed by the university, and, under existing zoning, Vanderbilt Hall could be replaced by a 300-foot-tall tower. Given the city and the City Council’s recent approval of gigantic new developments by N.Y.U. on the nearby superblocks, it would be particularly unfortunate and unjust if these sites were not included in the new historic district.
So while we have much to celebrate with this recent progress on South Village landmarking, we also have much work to do (including fighting for “Phase III” of our proposed South Village Historic District, south of Houston St.). Speaker Quinn and fellow elected officials have recently joined us in urging the city to consider adding these three excluded sites to the district, which is a good and important first step.
But time is short, and more is needed. Every block in Hudson Square that developers asked for was rezoned and, in some cases, to even higher levels than the applicants originally requested. All we are asking is that these three sites, part of the original South Village Historic District proposal, be included as well. Speaker Quinn agreed to rezone all of Hudson Square based upon a commitment to landmark the South Village; it is imperative that she ensures that the landmarking is just as comprehensive, and includes these three sites, which are vitally important to the South Village’s history, and its future.
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation