Sunday, July 12, 2015

188. West Village Wonders and Horrors

      Recently I visited an old friend who lives in a handsome and well-preserved Greek Revival house, one of several on the north side of Charlton Street between Sixth Avenue and Varick.  On the south side of that block, modern brick apartment buildings loom, big and unlovely, contrasting sharply with the charm of the old Greek Revival houses.  My friend lives in one with a brownstone stoop, and the interior preserves the features typical of the Greek Revival parlor floor of earlier times: a front and back parlor with a sliding door that can be pulled shut to separate them; two tall windows in back looking out on a garden; two more in front looking out on the street; a handsome fireplace in each parlor; and, in the back parlor, the molded ceiling medallion, ornate yet chaste, from which a gas-lit chandelier probably once hung. 

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A Greek Revival house dating from 1845.

     Greek Revival houses are common in the West Village, and my hostess and I expressed a shared admiration for their clean lines and sober simplicity, all the more evident in her parlors because of their lack of clutter.    She had recently visited a friend in an old Federal Style home, with the typical slanting roof with two dormer windows – a style that I find quaint (an awful word) and charming – but by comparison with her own spacious home, she found it cramped to the point of claustrophobic, and dark as well.  As we talked in her front parlor, the late-afternoon sunlight was flooding in through the tall front windows, which faced south.  A soothing calm prevailed, for those windows admitted no noise from the street.  It was a beautiful moment, and I marveled at the clean lines of the uncluttered rooms, the quiet, the tall windows admitting the miracle of light.  So who needs luxury housing?  This, I thought, is civilized, is how people are supposed to live.

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A Greek Reviva parlor.

     Greek Revival houses abound in the West Village, often built by middle-class citizens in the 1830s as they fled the yellow-fever epidemics that recurred every summer in the lower wards of the city, and the cholera outbreak of 1832.  I like brownstones too, more ornate and imposing, with their high front stoops and ornamental moldings – a different experience from the simplicity of the Greek Revival style.  (See post #145, New York Brownstones, Sept. 21, 2014.)  All these old houses are, for me, among the top wonders of the West Village, for wonders can come in small sizes.  They have charm and character, precisely the qualities that I find lacking in the massive brick apartment buildings that so often hem them in.

     Wonders of a different kind are several huge buildings that loom up here and there in the West Village.  They aren’t aesthetically pleasing, but they have undergone wondrous changes and for that reason alone are of interest.  Here I’ll deal with just one of them, the Archive Building, a ten-story red-brick colossus that occupies a whole block between Christopher and Barrow Streets, and between Greenwich and Washington, a short distance from the Hudson River.  I’ve walked past it for years, wondering vaguely what this big, squat mass – the biggest in the Village -- was doing there, but never until now was I curious enough to find out, or even to learn its name and how it got it. 

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The Archive Building on Christopher Street.
     What today is known as the Archive Building was built in two stages between 1892 and 1899 in Romanesque Revival style, with round arches framing the first- and seventh-floor windows, rows of smaller arches at the top, wide brick support piers, and massive brick walls.  Christened the U.S. Appraisers’ Warehouse, it provided space where customs agents could examine imported goods and set valuations and duties on them.  Downtown real estate interests had wanted to put the warehouse at the foot of Manhattan, next to the Custom House, but merchants had argued for the present location, since many ships unloaded at the foot of Christopher Street and nearby piers.

     But in time the income tax, first legislated in 1913, replaced customs duties as the chief source of the federal government’s income, and the building, renamed the U.S. Federal Building, became a general federal warehouse.  Then in the 1930s it was remodeled into office space housing the National Archives Record Center, a post office, and other federal agencies.  Recognizing the building’s historic significance, the city designated it a landmark in 1966.

     By the early 1970s the federal offices were moving out, and the newly created New York Landmarks Conservancy, a nonprofit group promoting landmark preservation, intervened to save the building in a unique real estate deal that would open parts of the building to the public.  Tortuous negotiations followed, leading to a complex deal in 1982 that provided money for the Landmarks Conservancy’s Historic Properties Fund, low-cost space for community arts and social service agencies, and funds for local Village groups.  The developer received real-estate tax reductions, and in exchange promised to give tenants rent-stabilization benefits as long as the reductions lasted.

     Six years of renovation followed, resulting in spacious apartments under high ceilings, some with views of the Hudson or the gardens of the Episcopal church St. Luke in the Fields, and some facing onto a newly created quiet inner courtyard.  Students, young Wall Street professionals, artists, models, photographers, and fashion designers moved in, attracted by the loftlike apartments and stabilized rents.  (One noteworthy tenant of later years was Monica Lewinsky of Clinton White House notoriety, but the less said about her the better.)  

     In 2003 the tenants learned that, under the terms of the complex deal of 1982, their rent-stabilization status was due to expire, and they faced staggering rent increases if they chose to remain in their apartments.  Anxiety reigned, and complaints surfaced about dry rot in the hallways and beetle infestations.  Some paid and stayed, some with great regret moved out, and some went to court, hoping to obtain a final two-year stabilized lease before getting a monthly rent increase of $1,000 or more.  The ensuing legal brouhaha was probably as confusing to those involved as it is to me now, since so many parties were involved, each intent on obtaining the best deal possible: the developer, the old tenants, the new tenants, the city, and the landmark preservationists.

      And what is the Archive Building today?  Courtesy of Rockrose Development Corporation, luxury housing with 479 apartments, a concierge and a doorman, a garage, a roof deck, laundries on every floor, and a fitness center.  Sound familiar?  You bet!  The building itself, I confess, has a certain staid dignity that I am beginning to discern.  But studios there go for $4,450 a month, and one-bedroom apartments for $6,300.  Obviously, the legal brouhaha did not, in the long run, prevent the developer from hoisting rents up to current market rates.  Another luxury housing development: just what the Village needs.

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354 West 11th Street.
Beyond My Ken
     In a previous post (#184) on architectural cast iron and terra cotta, I cheated a little, in that I included a photo of a Greek Revival house that was indeed on 11th Street, but not on the stretch covered in that post, which ran from Seventh Avenue east to Broadway.  The house in question is the one at 354 West 11th Street, on West 11th Street between Washington and West Streets, on a stretch of West 11th Street that I have walked many a time, going to and from the Hudson River waterfront.  It is a charming little house, sandwiched in between taller and more modern buildings on either side.  Information from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), which will figure prominently in this story, tells me that the house was built as a residence in 1844 (rather late for a Greek Revival house), that in 1871 it was extended 11 feet in the rear, and that today it stands as an almost entirely intact Greek Revival townhouse.  Significantly, it was landmarked in 2007.

     Well and good, but what concerns me now is its neighbor immediately to the west at 356-360 West 11th Street.  Some years back I told in this blog of spotting a scurrying mouse on West 11th Street and following it to see where it was going.  With me following discreetly, it crossed 11th Street and vanished under the door of a garage whose vast shadowy interior I could glimpse from the sidewalk.  When one of the garage employees appeared, I told him of the mouse’s invasion, and he was gently amused.  And that is the end of this trivial tale, which I tell here now only to show how, focused on the mouse, I noticed only the ground floor of the building, a shabby enough exterior composed of garage doors flanked by brickwork with the cheery warnings NO PARKING and YOUR CAR WILL BE TOWED.  So I was completely unaware of what loomed above, and what loomed above is the subject of this story.

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The graffito "Casa del Popolo" (House of the People) is a recent addition, still in evidence today.
     First, a bit of background, courtesy again of GVSHP.  The structure at 356-360 West 11th Street was originally a three-story brick building built in 1915 by a trucking company for use as a stable.  In 1919 it was converted to a garage with storage space, and in 1961 it was altered to a lab and office space, and then – sometime before 2006 – it became an artist’s studio: an evolution that reflects the gentrification of the neighborhood.  But that’s only the beginning of the story.

     On my frequent walks west along 11th Street toward the river I would often see people straining their necks looking upward, I wasn’t quite sure at what.  Finally, out of curiosity, I did the same and for the first time really focused on the superstructure of 356-360 West 11th Street.  This was no longer a plain three-story brick building, for above it was an eleven-story addition, a soaring stuccoed monster of a palace with loggias and balconies and terraces and round-arched windows, its façade receding in stages toward the top, all of it vaguely and brazenly Italianate, saying which I mean no insult to Italy and its architects, who are in no way responsible for this outlandish palazzo, the creation of some crazed American developer who had no regard for the West Village setting it so violates.

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Palazzo Chupi, still Pepto Bismol pink.

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Julian Schnabel in 2010.
Julian Schnabel
     The name of this atrocity?  Palazzo Chupi.  And the perpetrator?  Julian Schnabel, whom I had never heard of.  Quick recourse to Wikipedia, that conglomeration of real and false facts, informed me that Mr. Schnabel is a renowned American artist and filmmaker, born in Flatbush, the recipient of numerous awards, whose obvious financial success permits him this colossal indulgence.  Photographs reveal a stocky man now in his fifties with a fierce black mustache and a graying beard: a Renaissance man of many talents who dreams big and wants to live and build big. 

     In 1997 Schnabel purchased this building for $2.1 million and moved his family in.  Then, in September 2005 -- a date that will live in infamy – he began construction of his dreamed-of palazzo, work that went on for a good (or bad) two years.  The original three floors now serve as his studio, with grandiose space for grandiose visions, and in the basement a grandiose swimming pool.  On the upper floors, whose trendy Italianate superstructure overtops every other building in the area, are five lavish units, one for his family (a second wife and twin teen-age sons) with bold black-and-white tile floors and super modern furnishings with vibrant colors, and four other units that he meant to rent out.  He bought the building, he says, “because I wanted more space, and because I thought I could sell two or three apartments to pay for that space, and I built it because I could.”

     But what does the name mean: Palazzo Chupi?  Palazzo is clear enough, but Chupi?  Rampant speculation resulted -- it means “kisses” in Italian, and “underpants” in Swahili – but it seems that “chupi” is a pet name for his wife. 

     Okay, but how could he get away with this oddity in the Greenwich Village Historic District?  “Because I could.”  The historic district stops at Washington Street, just short of the palazzo’s site.  GVSHP had worked hard to get the historic district extended all the way to West Street and the river, but had to be contented with progress that fell short of that.  The city agreed to downzone much of the Far West Village in 2005, limiting the height of all new construction, but according to Schnabel’s neighbors, who protested his plans the moment they learned of them, he had his workers doing illegal construction after hours and on weekends so as to get the project approved before the new rules went into effect.  He gambled and won, for the city allowed him to build under the old, looser zoning rules, rather than the new rules just enacted. 

     Wondering what “Chupi” meant, in 2007 the Villager, a local weekly, asked Andrew Berman, executive director of GVSHP, for his rendering.  “I have no idea what ‘chupi’ means,” he replied, “unless it means ‘big, ugly building that never should have been built.’  He’s obviously trying to pretend that this looks somehow Florentine or Venetian, when, really, it looks like a Malibu Barbie house that exploded or something.”  Some critics found the palazzo exciting or at least different – no clunky big glass box, like all those Upper East Side monsters -- but GVSHP, dedicated to preserving old buildings of value and preventing new monstrosities, is ruthlessly critical.  

     One further detail: when the black construction netting was removed in June 2007, the newly renovated building was revealed in all its glory as being, of all colors, pink.  I don’t mean soft feminine pink; I mean bright, vibrant, garish bubblegum pink.  Or “hot pink,” as some detractors labeled it, or ”neon pink,” or “Pepto Bismol pink.”  “Pompeii red,” insisted Schnabel.  But for me, pink like I didn’t know pink could be.  Only with time – about four years of it -- did its weathered features fade slightly to a more acceptable “dusty Venetian rose.”  For this at least, we should be grateful.  Or as one commentator put it, “Paler pinks make better neighbors.”

     Not that the preservationists and their allies have given up.  Never has a  development been subject to more tweaks and Twitters.  For if Schnabel managed to wiggle past the rules, his ensuing travails have been chronicled on the real-estate blog Curbed with vast irreverence and unbounded glee.

     And travails there have been.  Mr. Schnabel's main problem was simply bad timing: he bought the building and “chupified” it at the peak of the real estate boom, and the bubble soon burst, convulsing not just the real estate market but the whole financial community and the economy as well.  Two of the four units sold fairly quickly, one to William Brady, a managing director of Credit Suisse, for $15 million, and another for $12 million to the actor Richard Gere, who then tried to “flip” it: that is, rather than moving in, he put it back on the market in hopes of making a quick profit by reselling it.  But Mr. Gere’s apartment didn’t flip, and when lowering the asking price didn’t help, he took it off the market.

     Meanwhile the top two units likewise found no buyers, despite their 18-foot ceilings, baronial bathrooms with wood-burning fireplaces, paintings and sculpture by none other than Mr. Schnabel, and unobstructed views of the Hudson River and distant New Jersey.  After being on the market for months, the penthouse triplex (5 floors, 3713 square feet) was bought by William Brady, already the owner of one unit, for $10.5 million, down a wee bit from the original asking price of $32 million, leaving the duplex below it (3963 square feet) on the eighth and nine floors, which finally went for $12 million, likewise a bit of a comedown from $27 million.  Was the pink palazzo becoming a white elephant?  In 2009 Schnabel had to pluck his late Picasso, “Femme au Chapeau,” off his bedroom wall and sell it at Christie’s for $7.7 million, in an effort to pay down some of the debts created by the construction of his palazzo. 

     “An unholy shrine to Schnabel’s ego,” one commentator grants, but better, he insists, than the glass boxes sprouting up all over the city like a bad virus.  Certainly it is the big dream of a big man, no pale imitation of someone else’s fantasy.  Maybe Schnabel really is a Renaissance man of our own age, bigger than life, whom we’ll all come to appreciate.  Maybe he would endorse the words now posted on the front window of one of the designer clothing stores just down Bleecker Street from my building: “Les folies sont les seules choses qu’on ne regrette jamais” (Follies are the only things one never regrets – Oscar Wilde).  But from the corner of Bleecker and West 11th, just across from my building, I can see his pink tower high above the other rooftops, and it pains my psyche.  For me today, his pink palazzo is a horror.

     A further thought: I wonder how the residents of 356-360 West 11th Street fared during Hurricane Sandy.  Westbeth was flooded and lost power for days.  Penthouse living might not be so attractive under those dire circumstances.

     Given my predilection for Greek Revival houses, and my perennial dismay at the loss of the old Penn Central, I could well be accused of clinging to an outdated classicism, of being out of tune with the times, a charge that I deny.  Not everything startlingly new offends me (as long as it isn’t pink).  If in the West Village I’m a fervent preservationist, in Midtown and the Upper West Side I’m on the side of innovation and the fire of genius, of which we seem to be in short supply.  I could do without the clunky glass-box high-rises that clutter up those parts of the city today, but I have room for the boldly new, if it dazzles and astonishes.  If any of these new high-rises towering up all over Manhattan show a different play of light and shadow, or a different color, depending on the angle they are viewed from, and on the time of day, that would be fascinating.  And if any of them, spiking a tapering glass summit upward, should end in a shimmering pinnacle of light, that would be sublime. 

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53 West 53rd Street, a promotional photo.

     World-renowned French architect Jean Nouvel’s slender needle of a high-rise, the Tower Verre, now under construction at 45 West 53rd Street, adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art, just might do the trick, even though  the New York City Planning Commission lopped 200 feet off the tower as initially proposed.  Whether it bears the magical name Tower Verre (Glass Tower) or the utterly prosaic “53 West 53” that has now superseded it, is of secondary importance.  M. Nouvel has already startled us with his 23-story residential tower at 100 Eleventh Avenue, on the corner of West 19th Street in Chelsea, a “Vision Machine” facing the Hudson River.  Its south and west façade is described as a “pixilated curtain wall” inspired by an insect’s compound eye and capturing light and reflecting it back to the city – a novel feature such as I have never seen before.  Admittedly, the structure’s massive curved façade with 1,647 windowpanes of different sizes may take some getting used to, and I regret to report that a penthouse there has sold for $19.4 million, but regardless of that, the building is different, unique.  And if some residents complain of shoddy construction, lobby leaks, and cracking concrete due to cost-cutting, those are the developer’s doing, not Nouvel’s; he in fact sides publicly with the complainers.

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Jean Nouvel in 2009.  A wonder worker.
Jean Nouvel
     (“Pixilated,” derived from “pixie,” a mischievous sprite of legend, is defined by Merriam-Webster as meaning “somewhat mentally unbalanced,” “bemused,” “whimsical.”  But “pixelated,” sometimes spelled “pixilated,” is a technical term having nothing to do with pixies and meaning “to break up into pixels,” a pixel being the smallest component of a digital image, often rendered as a tiny square.  If at this point you’re confused, so am I, for I’m more at ease with mischievous sprites than digital images.  But if you look at a photo of the building’s façade, you’ll begin to get the point.)

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100 Eleventh Avenue, the south and west façade.

     Clearly, M. Nouvel is a genius.  The Planning Commission’s meddling with his concept reminds me of Ayn Rand’s short novel The Fountainhead (short for her, in my paperback edition a mere 694 pages), in which a brilliant young architect’s career is stymied at every turn by the massed mediocrity of his architectural peers, whose concepts are rooted in the past, until he finally triumphs.  So what if M. Nouvel’s dazzling tower, as originally conceived, would have matched the Empire State Building in height and cast a shadow, a very slender shadow, on Central Park?  Those timorous bureaucrats should have let him do what he proposed.  Still, we’re lucky to have his project on any terms in the desolate architectural wasteland of Midtown.  And so, using the words of impresario Sergei Diaghilev to the young Jean Cocteau, I say to M. Nouvel, or to whoever now is in charge of the nascent Tower Verre, émerveille-moi!  Do me wonders!

    Our strange sexual mores:  I’ve just learned that a young man in Indiana, age 19, has had to serve 90 days in jail and probation for having had consensual sex in Michigan with a girl he thought was 17, a year over the Michigan age of consent, but who was in fact 14.  Furthermore, he will probably be listed on a sex offender registry and have the label “pedophile” pinned to him for life, with all the onerous restrictions that involves.  This is insane and obscene, for the boy is obviously no pedophile.  Much of what I say in my much-visited post #43, “Man/Boy Love: the Great Taboo” (January 20, 2013), applies to heterosexual relations as well.  Consensual sex at any age should not be a concern of the criminal justice system, which is clumsy, heavy-handed, obtuse.  Our seemingly permissive society is obsessed with sex, glorifies it, then punishes those who engage in it.  When, oh when, will we grow up?  When will we show at least a modicum of understanding and common sense, when it comes to sex?  I can only hope that this case, well publicized, will lead to at least an intelligent discussion and maybe, just maybe, a little bit of reform.

     As for post #43 on man/boy love, it still attracts more viewers than any other post to date.  But it has cost me something, for the self-publishing press now working on my collection of posts from the blog has asked me to either delete it as a chapter of the book, or retain it but publish the book under my own imprint, rather than theirs.  The problem?  Fears of possible legal problems.  Not wanting to create an almost fictional press of my own, I’ve opted, with great regret, to delete the chapter.  And some time ago, when I offered to promote on the blog a book published by a friend, she declined, explaining ever so tactfully that she didn’t want her book linked in any way to a blog containing a post sympathetic to consensual man/boy love.  So if sex is alive and well in our fair land, so is suspicion of it, and a preference to avoid certain aspects of it that might – shhhh! – get one in trouble. 

     Coming soon:  The Need to Kill: bugs, shotguns, rage, Einstein on wonder, and how I flip and flop.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder


  1. This blog is very useful. Keep on posting such type of information about New York So, that more and more people came to know about New York and entertainment in New York.

    1. Many thanks. I've got lots more posts under way, and a collection of them that will be published later this year.