Landmark Townhouse Faces Better Future
Although the city appears gridlocked with agencies, boards and civic groups committed to preserving historically noteworthy buildings-to freeze New York in a time other than the present, some might say-a building or two manages to slip through the cracks. Apparently, one is at 245 East 17th Street, on Stuyvesant Park, where a landmarked building has seen its former splendor dwindle away during years of misuse and neglect.
The building, an 1883 landmark, is particularly noteworthy because it was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, a 19th-century builder considered to be the father of American architecture. It is one of Hunt’s few remaining local structures.
However, Beth Israel Medical Center, which owned the building for a quarter of a century, used the elegant old mansion as the site of its psychiatric day clinic. During its ownership, the hospital was cited several times for failing to preserve the city-designated landmark by doing things like erectinganeight-footmetal fence, replacing the historic stone door with a steel panel and installing high-intensity lamps that neighbors called “garish.”
The building has now been sold to East End Temple, and the new owner has plans for a full restoration. The plans were presented on Nov. 14 to Board 6 for its approval, which was enthusiastically given.
Hunt built the townhouse on land belonging to Hamilton Fish, the 19th-century New York Senator. The five-story brick building was commissioned by Fish’s daughter and her husband, Sidney Webster, a lawyer and secretary to President Franklin Pierce. Hunt’s other remaining New York structures include the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal and the Museum of Modern Art’s colonnaded façade.
Although modest compared to the many mansions and chateaux Hunt designed for families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts, the 17th Street French Renaissance–style home radiated charm with its broad stoop, gracious stone doorway, sloping roof and decorative first-floor bas-relief.
Presently, the building looks more institutional than picturesque, and it pales next to the block’s better-nurtured buildings. Jack Taylor of the Stuyvesant Park Neighborhood Association told Board 6 that the premises were left by Beth Israel “in a condition best described as reprehensible.”
Harry Kendall, professor of historic preservation at Columbia University and partner of BKSK Architects, hopes to remedy the situation. Using an old photo of the building, BKSK is working with construction engineers at LWC Inc. to recreate the original façade. To restore historic elements, the building’s lower level will be reconfigured, a new double door with detailed stone accents will be installed and the slate on the building’s lower façade will be “re-rusticated,” making it resemble its original rough texture.
The East End congregation used the $2.9 million it made in the sale of its East 23rd Street temple building to purchase the East 17th Street site three years ago. East End spent 48 years in its previous building, but is creating a multi-purpose facility in the Hunt townhouse, including a library, social hall, youth lounge and classrooms, all complementing the first-floor sanctuary.
East 23rd Street resident Lyle Frank assured Board 6 that East End had been a wonderful neighbor, but a few community members voiced concerns about traffic, noise and other residential worries. An East End representative assured them that the small congregation of 200 families would be the Mister Rogers of neighbors, especially compared with the school, hotel, drug-rehab center and hospitals which also make their home around Stuyvesant Park.
Board 6 gave its nod of approval to the project; the city Landmarks Commission will now review the proposed changes more closely at its Nov. 27 meeting. But Jack Taylor seemed to voice the sentiment of the board when he said that “the property is at last in good hands.”
-Anna Jane Grossman
Crackdown On Prostitutes?
In between worrying about liquor licenses and zoning changes, Board 2 has decided to take on one of the oldest scourges in the community-nay, in mainstream society: prostitution.
After trying to combat the problem for years, board members are deciding whether to throw their support behind the only measure some think will work: decriminalizing or legalizing the profession, which they hope will mean relocating the trade to specially designated districts away from their streets. A resolution on the matter is tied up in a closely divided executive committee, and it’s expected to come before the board next month.
But since law changes aren’t likely to take place anytime soon, the board voted on Nov. 15 on a separate resolution to support the work already being done by the police to combat prostitution in the West Village. Specifically, the board advocated greater use of the Midtown Community Court, which adjudicates “nuisance crimes” of this variety and often takes appropriate steps to try to change the behavior of the offenders, as opposed to just slapping them with jail time.
The resolution seemed to bend over backwards to avoid offending any of the various opposing interest groups, from the highly upset neighbors who deal with public urination and sex on their stoops to the prostitutes themselves. Consequently, many board members felt that the wording of the resolution contradicted itself by first criticizing past police action for being “inconclusive,” as well as for unwittingly persecuting innocent members of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community, and then proceeding to state its wholehearted support for the NYPD.
Ann Arlen, second vice chair of Board 2, voted for the resolution, acknowledging its flaws but ultimately siding with fed-up neighbors. Still, she said, the only real solution is the ultimate one-decriminalization and even legalization.
“I don’t find that it makes sense to say, ‘Stop carrying out what our law tells you to do,’” she told The Observer about the vote of confidence for the police. “In other words, [the police] are trying to do their job until they are given another job to do.”
Melissa Sklarz, head of the LGBT Committee, however, voiced strong opposition, later telling The Observer that she tries to serve as an advocate for the prostitutes. She said she believes the policing of public sex often boils down to the unfair persecution of transgendered people and people of color.
Nonetheless, the resolution narrowly passed with 16 yes votes, seven nos and seven abstentions (which count as nos). But because two board members were out of the room at the time, board member Ed Gold called for a revote. Board chair Aubrey Lees objected. And for 20 minutes, the board members argued loudly over what some saw as Ms. Lee’s erroneous application of Robert’s Rules of Order.
In the end, Ms. Lees-who had voted with the majority-did not allow a revote, and much of the board left in protest, with barely a quorum remaining for the rest of the meeting.
– Benjamin Ryan
Dec. 4: Board 7, St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center, 1000 10th Avenue, between 58th and 59th streets, 7 p.m. 362-4008.
Dec. 5: Board 4, St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital Center, 1000 10th Avenue, between 58th and 59th streets, 6 p.m., 736-4536; Board 10, location to be announced, 6 p.m., 749-3105.