When developer André Balazs opens his swanky new 344-room Standard hotel on West 13th Street next year, his guests will enjoy some striking views.
They can peer out to the west and watch luxury cruise liners float down the Hudson River.
They can gaze down below at the lush foliage and scenic overlooks of the city’s elevated High Line Park, also slated to open in 2008.
And, upon glimpsing the building adjacent to the park below, some lodgers may stare and wonder: Who is that odd fellow prancing around his junk-strewn patio, blasting a geyser stream of water high into the air from the tip of his arrow-shaped keytar?
The hotel’s flamboyant neighbor is Jerry Lewis (a.k.a. “Novac”) Noury, a 61-year-old disco-era dinosaur whose perhaps biggest claim to fame is inventing the liquid-spewing, shoulder-slung electric organ, with which he soaked so many clubgoers at Studio 54 and other venues in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
“This is me at the grand opening of Xenon,” Mr. Noury said on the roof of the Hotel Gansevoort, showing off an old photo of his younger self showering some disco diva with his gushing instrument. “As you can see, a female is uninhibitedly reacting to the keyboard, as the keyboard attracts many females—and males, in that era.”
Even today, he’ll whip it out on special occasions, though Mr. Noury now does most of his spouting on the subject of neighborhood development.
He’s railed against the Standard’s construction: the constant ground-level drilling causing cracks in his own modest three-story building at 51 Little West 12th Street, which he’s owned since the mid-1980’s; the work high above raining debris all over his second-floor terrace.
Lately, though, much of his rhetoric has been directed at the neighboring High Line project and what Mr. Noury sees as its glaring vulnerability to disaster.
“The High Line is not your typical park—it’s 25 feet above ground,” he said of the planned 1.5-mile-long open space atop the old elevated train tracks. Yet, a map of the first phase of the park development, stretching several blocks from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street, shows only five exit points.
What happens in the event of an emergency?
“You’re going to have a stampede,” Mr. Noury ominously predicted. “The High Line lacks staircases like the Titanic lacked lifeboats.”
Not to come off like a complete doomsayer, however, Mr. Noury has also positioned himself to assume the role of savior, offering to build a so-called “Stairway to High Line,” connecting pedestrians on the raised park to safe ground via his own patio. The proposed structure would act as a sort of drawbridge-style escape route. “There will be a Parks Department representative, or my representative, that will use an old hand crank to bring the bridge up and down,” he explained to The Observer.
THE CREATOR OF the spurting keyboard, it turns out, is full of big ideas like this. In fact, when representatives of Mr. Balazs came to him with a buyout offer many months ago, the entrenched owner countered with a vastly different proposal: Let’s be partners!
“I want to build a mini-inn with three restaurants,” Mr. Noury said. “As of right, I can build 13,000 square feet, a hundred feet tall,” he added. “That’s 10 stories.” Among the many far-out components to Mr. Noury’s “mini-inn” plan, he spoke of equipping the place with solar panels, a waterfall and a stem cell research center.
It’s an ambitious concept, especially for a guy who hasn’t seemed to do much of anything with his property in more than two decades. Except storage.
The building was once home to a seedy, round-the-clock cabaret where women danced nude and, to hear him tell it, also performed “magic tricks.” Mr. Noury evicted the sexy magicians and, for a while, used the place as an after-hours party spot, which he called RSVP.
Yet, despite the venue’s potential high value as a nightlife destination—boasting no restrictions on dancing or live entertainment—he never leased it to anyone else, preferring instead to let it devolve into his own personal pack-rat palace, cluttered with old club relics, movie props and other stuff: There’s a rusty old light rig from Studio 54, a pool table from the Paul Newman film The Hustler and several automobiles stashed away in the old strip-club space. The second-floor outdoor patio, which Mr. Noury has dubbed his “showroom,” is strewn with old sinks, chairs, suitcases, stacks of insulation and a six-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty, among other items.
In recent years, neighbors have complained to the Buildings Department about the condition and use of the registered restaurant space for automotive storage and residential purposes, city records show.
All present appearances aside, Mr. Noury insisted that the site offers plenty of potential. “My building could be like the special, eclectic little mini-mansion of rooms to get away from the pizza-pie hotel,” he said of his proposed hotel deal with Mr. Balazs.
The actual hotelier, though, wasn’t looking to join forces with the visionary club vet. Instead, the developer severed ties—literally—demolishing an old abutting train station, which previously linked Mr. Noury’s building to the High Line.
In the months since, the inveterate Mr. Noury has vigorously sought to reconnect to the High Line. Hence, his critics say, all the emergency-preparedness talk.
“You can’t have celebration without evacuation” is perhaps Mr. Noury’s favorite slogan. He even wrote a song about it, titled “Emergency Preparedness Post 9/11”: “Castrophe/Lives in distress/Emergency preparedness/Because I don’t want to leave you behind/We would meet in that place/With suitcase in hand/And a plan/We would still be walking strong/To do what we can/To rebuild/Our life/Our love/Our land.”
Officials involved in the park project aren’t buying Mr. Noury’s Chicken Little routine.
“The High Line’s egress plan was carefully reviewed and approved by the Department of Buildings, as well as Police and Fire departments, as meeting all applicable codes,” said Joshua David, co-founder of the nonprofit fund-raising and advisory group Friends of the High Line, in a written statement. “We have studied several possible emergency scenarios on the High Line that would require evacuation. It is our conclusion, based on evacuation models at times of highest anticipated use, that the current number and location of High Line access points more than fulfills the highest standards of safety for public spaces.”
Even if his proposed “Stairway” never materializes, Mr. Noury seemed determined to redevelop his long-standing building. Just as soon as he can find a financial backer. “I’m in talks with various interested parties that I can’t mention now—I don’t want to start a bidding war,” he said. “They see what I have here is a gold mine.”