Celebrities–they’re just like us, even when it comes to the city’s interminable buildings bureaucracy. Even a local legend like Robert De Niro can’t escape the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s grasp, though in the end he got what he wanted. Then again, when doesn’t the Godfather of Tribeca?
In 2004, the commission approved designs for De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel, located in the Tribeca North Historic District. The new hotel goes a long way toward mimicking its brick-clad store-and-loft building neighbors, the sort that typify the old dry goods quarter of the city. It has modern flourishes, too, such as a rounded glass column of windows at its southern corner. The commission spoke favorably of the design as the melding of new and old.
What they did not appreciate is that De Niro and his architect, Axel Vervoordt, added a copper mansard roof to the two-story penthouse.
While this might seem like a minor complaint, any such work done without the commission’s approval creates precedent that can be held against it in the future. As a result, De Niro was called back to account for the addition, like Ace Rothstein in Casino, in the fall of last year. The roof had been discovered the year before–shows you how fast the city works some times–and despite the delays, the commission decided to whack the mansard.
De Niro returned to the commission today, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, a navy fleece, baggy khakis and an olive fisherman’s cap. He looked nothing like the dashing, effortless actor one might hope for and everything like the ill-at-ease, actor-in-bad-cognito one might expect. His son Raphael, the well-known real estate broker, was also here. Both were wearing deck shoes. When the group walked in, with preservation consultants, land-use attorneys and architects in tow, three paparazzi sprang into action, as well as half-a-dozen reporters with point-and-shoot cameras. It was a rare event for the ninth floor of One Centre Street.
Bill Higgins of preservation consultancy Higgins and Quaisbarth made the case that the rooftops of Tribeca were littered with extrusions and additions on the roof. He brought up a slide showing a couple of water towers. Not exactly a two-story penthouse.
He was followed by Vervoordt and his Japanese collaborator, and the Belgian architect argued that the new approach to the rooftop would involve something called Wabi. “It is about harmony and peace and tranquility. And balance,” Vervoordt said. Golden ratios and matching squares were bandied about, as were natural materials and antique accoutrement.
Then came the renderings. More cameras flashed, though this had the undesired effect of washing out the projector. In place of the stark copper roof, with its heavy eaves, will be simple walls of brick echoing the building below. Still, the desired effect, for privacy, will be achieved by a nest of square and rectangular pergola, from which ivy will grow.
The penthouse, Vervoordt said after the hearing, will not be a private residence but part of the hotel, “the luxury suite.” When it is finished sometime next year, everyone will be able to have a look. Assuming they have enough money, of course. He also mentioned that it will be a very spare space—”poor” was his word—befitting the Wabi credo.
The commissioners were highly enthusiastic about the new design, quite a turnaround from the disparagement it received a year ago, especially from angry (jealous?) neighbors.
“I was somewhat skeptical, seeing some early sketches, that this wasn’t perhaps the right building,” commissioner Fred Bland said. “But now I am totally convinced.”
Commissioner Christopher Barnes heaped even greater praise on the building. “I think you’ve made a bleak situation transcendent,” he said. “It is a vast improvement and an excellent addition.”
De Niro even agreed, as he was chased to the elevators by a pack of press. Holding the door open to answer questions, he said he appreciated the process and the building that resulted. “I’m happy,” he said. “Sensibility prevailed.”