Spotlight on the Skylights at Carnegie Hall Landmarks Hearing

“I’m feeling very badly about my skylights being taken away,” Editta Sherman, a 97-year-old tenant in the Carnegie Hall Studio Towers, told the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday afternoon.

Ms. Sherman, who moved into the building in 1949, has become famous for resisting the Carnegie Hall Corporation’s offer to relocate her from her 12th-floor studio above the famed musical venue. On Tuesday, she was part of a small, but vocal, contingent that testified against a set of proposed changes to the venue.

The plan presented by Carnegie Hall would replace the building’s bronze marquee with a glass overhang; insert a glass elevator between the north and south towers; and remove a series of skylights to make room for a rooftop terrace.

The plan’s opponents claim that removing the skylights will destroy the building’s unique light, which for decades drew a legion of artists to the residential studios above the famed music hall. The studio towers were completed in 1896, based on a design by Henry J. Hardenbergh, who also designed the Dakota and the Plaza Hotel.

(CHC would like to house its own programs in the Studio Towers, and has offered to find a comparable apartment for Ms. Sherman and the five other rent-controlled tenants who remain in the building, pledging to pay the cost difference for the remainder of their lives.)

Cas Stachelberg, a historical consultant for CHC, told the commission that the skylights should not be considered part of Mr. Hardenbergh’s original design, because they were re-constructed in the mid-1980s. Instead, Mr. Stachelberg said the rooftop terrace was part of the building’s “original intent.” Had that vision been realized at the time, he said, the skylights would never have been installed.

The renovations are supported by local Councilman Daniel Garodnick and Representative Carolyn Maloney, along with the local community board and the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

But Billy Lyons, an actor who studied in the studios before CHC began evicting non-rent-controlled tenants, claimed that the skylights should be considered part of the original design, and had an “integral role in the interior of the building,” which once housed artists like Childe Hassam, Augustus Heaton and Charles Dana Gibson.

“Not having these skylights around in the 21st century would be a tremendous loss to our history and cultural heritage,” Mr. Lyons testified.

LPC member Frederick Bland tried to separate the history of the exterior from the current struggle over its interior, which is not part of the building’s landmark designation.

“It is not our purview to need to understand the entire history of what goes on inside buildings,” said Mr. Bland, although he admitted “some angst” in saying that.

Chairman Robert Tierney echoed Mr. Bland. “The skylights would give me concern but for the fact that they’re not historic,” Mr. Tierney said, citing their re-construction in the 1980s. “There’s nothing we can do in terms of my opinion of keeping the skylights in their current form,” he said.

CHC’s architects will present a revised plan before the commission votes on the proposal, but the revisions are unlikely to include any major changes, what with the influential chairman having said he “can accept all aspects of this proposal as presented.”

But an encore is nearly always part of the landmarks process. Earlier, Mr. Bland had complimented the well-rehearsed presentation by inverting the old cliché about getting to Carnegie Hall. “How do you get to the Landmarks Commission? Practice, practice, practice.” 

Spotlight on the Skylights at Carnegie Hall Landmarks Hearing