It’s an unlikely sanctuary, the room filling quietly with worshippers. It might be a deserted trading floor or a hastily thrown-up sound stage—the industrial carpeting running wide and clean and a little unrelenting, the matted electric cords and walls that don’t quite reach the ceiling. There’s a sketchlike quality of impermanence that might be any of a thousand anonymous spaces downtown, filling according to invisible rhythms, empty one minute, crowded the next.
It’s in part because of all this or maybe despite it that when Haroon Moghul, a tall doctoral student with an easy laugh, launches into the Friday afternoon sermon, the words, “We seek refuge and sanctuary,” take on sudden weight.
It’s never been an easy question, of course: whether the city pays tribute to the past by enshrining its memory, or whether, in some cases, the past ripples out in all directions, stretching forward as well as back, into the city that is not yet here.
The Financial District building that recently sprung to the center of national debate, several raucous city meetings and one twice-rejected, ominously intoned National Republican Trust-sponsored ad—”They want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero”—has, for close to a year now, been the space where hundreds of Muslims gather quietly to read from the Koran and to pray.
Well-pressed men slip out of shoes, pocket their iPhones. The owner of a nearby Halal cart fans himself with a hat. A woman closes her eyes and fingers a strand of prayer beads. For all the national clamor, prayers go on the way they always do. Every so often, the chanting gives way to the staccato undertow of Lower Manhattan—the sharp slant of a siren, a loading dock’s grating tug—but mostly it’s quiet.
Among the worshippers is Sharif El-Gamal, a member of the congregation that has been praying in Lower Manhattan for five decades. He is also head of Soho Properties, the firm that purchased the Park Place building last year with the intent to build an Islamic community center. Recently rechristened Park51, the endeavor would include prayer space, a 500-seat performing arts center, a library, a culinary school, child-care facilities and a swimming pool.
The plan-still embryonic, Mr. El-Gamal hastens to interject-has a kind of wild ambition to it, the imaginative urge, like all real architecture, to make the world over again. “We’re looking to build something that’s never been done before in the city,” the Brooklyn-born developer says, sitting cross-legged in the makeshift prayer space. “We have a very ambitious project, and we want to have a very ambitious design. When people come to New York, we want them to come to Park51 just to look at the architecture.”
Cleared by the local community board, supported by a roster of city officials from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to Mayor Bloomberg, the project now just requires a vote by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to proceed. On an unset date later this summer, the commission will determine whether the current building, damaged by landing gear on Sept. 11, merits landmark designation, a decision that could potentially block future construction. Though the building was considered for—and not granted—landmark status more than 20 years ago, the fevered pitch of a public hearing on the matter last week leaves little certain about its future.
What will happen if the commission votes to landmark the building?
“We’re praying and hoping for the best,” says Mr. El-Gamal. “We believe.”
THE PROCESS BY which New York landmarks its buildings takes place mostly in drab backrooms, with municipal-minded retirees in bow ties the primary witnesses. Even considering the operatic Jane Jacobs-Robert Moses epic the city reenacts every decade or so, little could have prepared the commission’s members for the hearing on July 13, which included one police-escorted departure, innumerable rounds of heckling and legions of the most ardent preservationists the city has ever seen. Technicalities of architectural merit were met with thunderous whoops of endorsement.
“They’re unique,” a woman declared of the building’s cast-iron Italian Renaissance palazzo features. “They’re a special group of buildings that are never going to be built again.”
“Yeah!” a man with a neck tattoo shouted in solidarity.
Campaigning politicians also made guest appearances, cast as the unlikely foes of development. A question posed by Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rick Lazio—why was a building of a similar style landmarked over this one?—drew cheers. (Later, speaking to reporters, the candidate ventured into less technical terrain, suggesting that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf—one of the project’s leaders and an active member of the interfaith community—has radical ties.)
Despite the chorus on the other side, the building in question has its share of naysayers as well—chief among them Mr. El-Gamal, who hired the architectural consulting firm AKRF to evaluate its merit. “We don’t feel that it has the significance of an individual landmark,” he says. “This is not the Woolworth building. This is not the Chrysler Building. … There are 30 different buildings in this submarket that deserve landmark status before this one.”
The building was completed in 1858, when the sky-swallowing chasm of today’s Financial District was a trading hub with a more tangible output, mostly dry goods and textiles. Erected for a prominent New York shipping magnate, like most buildings of its day, 45 Park Place was a throwback to an earlier era of European grandeur, the Italian palazzo intended to conjure up visions of economic might.
The structure was home to a Burlington Coat Factory when, 143 years later, the landing gear of a plane rocketed through its roof. It then sat empty for years, a mute skeleton of a building—the windows boarded up, metal gates yanked across its facade, the top floors in shambles. Today, letters spelling out “Burlington Coat Factory” are faint outlines in chipped paint.
Opponents of the community center are calling for the building to be turned into a war memorial, and there is precedent for granting landmark status to historically significant buildings. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is a landmark, as is the townhouse inadvertently blown up by the Weather Underground. Park51′s leaders, meanwhile, have also stated that a Sept. 11 memorial is part of their vision for the site. (Daisy Khan, Imam Feisal’s wife, is, incidentally, an advisory member of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.)
It’s never been an easy question, of course: whether the city pays tribute to the past by enshrining its memory, or whether, in some cases, the past ripples out in all directions, stretching forward as well as back, into the city that is not yet here. And that city, the city rolling toward us, must find a way to be both for the living and for the dead.
THE FRIDAY AFTERNOON congregants vanish as quickly as they came, back to office buildings, back to midday’s undulating heat. Two blocks away, the long necks of cranes rise and fall above ground zero, straining with unknowable cargo. A member of the congregation is quick to point out that his brother is among the workers there, rebuilding.
Mr. El-Gamal, meanwhile, darts back and forth between people, keeping pace with multiple conversations at once. On architects, he says, “Everybody’s interested in this project. Everybody’s offering us their services, and they want to be a part of this process. It’s really been overwhelming.”
More specifically? “A lot of big names.” He stops to think a minute. “It’s all big names.”
Like any developer, Mr. El-Gamal is contending with air rights and space allocations, the arcane formulas by which Manhattan divides itself, a finite tract of space written and written over again. Real estate, like history, is an eternally contested site. The only sure thing is reinvention, the abiding law of creative destruction.
A building, in itself, is a kind of experiment in utopia, a captive orb. It unmakes the world and makes it over again. But a building in a city is something else: A long-shot speculative gamble, fugitive as time and precarious as community, it strikes at the place where unity and complexity move toward each other.