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How Some of NYC's First Landmarked Buildings Became Rubble

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These Federal-era houses were moved to Harrison Street during the construction of Manhattan Community College in 1971. Photo by James Nevius.
These Federal-era houses were moved to Harrison Street during the construction of Manhattan Community College in 1971. Photo by James Nevius.

Looking back over the five decades since New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) began protecting buildings and neighborhoods, the list of victories far outweighs the number of significant structures that are now gone. But that doesn't mean that the landmarking process has been easy. There have been major failures along the way, especially early on, when the LPC was first charting the unknown waters of large-scale urban preservation.

In the early years, some significant buildings were lost—not to the ravages of time, but because their designations had been revoked. The story of two of those buildings—the Leonard Jerome mansion on Madison Square and 71 Pearl Street—illustrate the struggle to find a balance between the goals of preservationists and the desires of real estate developers, a battle that is still very much alive today.

The Leonard Jerome mansion (right) on the east side of Madison Square Park was one of the city's first landmarks. Designated on November 21, 1965—the same day as the original landmark district, Brooklyn Heights—the Jerome mansion was cited in the LPC designation report (warning: PDF!) as being "one of New York CIty's finest town houses" and "an outstanding example...of a great American mansion designed for lavish entertaining." Yet, less than two years later, a demolition permit was issued, and by the end of 1967 the house was a pile of rubble.

Today perhaps most famous for being Winston Churchill's maternal grandfather, Leonard Jerome was known as the "King of Wall Street." His interests ranged from opera (he founded the Academy of Music, the city's premiere company) to horse racing. In 1866, he and his friend August Belmont built the Jerome Park racetrack in the Bronx, where the Belmont Stakes was first run in 1867. (Today, the Jerome Park Reservoir occupies this spot.) Upon returning from a grand tour of Europe in 1859, where Jerome and his wife, Clarissa, had an audience with Emperor Napoleon III, the Jeromes set about creating a palace of their own. As Wayne Craven notes in Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society, Leonard Jerome was in a competition with Belmont to see "who should be New York's dandiest bon vivant." Meanwhile, Clarissa wanted to build something grand enough to outshine her new next-door neighbor, Mrs. Schermerhorn, who had previously snubbed her in society. The result, designed by Thomas R. Jackson and finished in 1865, was a grand French Second Empire home with a mansard roof that could have been lifted directly from Paris. At the grand opening ball, guests entered to find two fountains, "one spouting eau de cologne, the other bubbling with champagne."

But all was not well in Jerome's Wall Street kingdom. Just four years later, he lost a fortune in the Panic of 1869 and, with his wife and daughters already ensconced in Paris, he began leasing his mansion to the Union League Club. (The mansion was where, a year later, a group of art-loving New Yorkers met to create the Metropolitan Museum.) After the Union League moved out, the mansion became the University Club, then later was purchased by the Manhattan Club, which owned it at the time of its landmark designation.

Photo of the Astor Library courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Almost immediately after the building became a landmark, the Manhattan Club sued. The club had already entered into an agreement with a developer who wanted to build an apartment complex on the site, and the club worried that the new designation would hinder the sale. And, as Marjorie Pearson notes in New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (1962-1999): Paradigm for Changing Attitudes for Historic Preservation (PDF), the club further argued that the LPC designation was "arbitrary and capricious" and that the building held "no real historical interest."

The courts disagreed. Judge Charles Marks wrote that the "architectural, historical, and aesthetic value" of the mansion was not in doubt and, more to the point, the court should not "substitute its judgment" for that of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. However, this seeming victory did nothing to stop the building's impending doom. The Manhattan Club went through with the sale of the building and the mansion's new owners, Herbert Fishbach and Jackson A. Edwards, argued that preserving the home placed an undue financial burden on them. This was based on a controversial hardship clause in the 1965 landmarks law, which stated that if a building was not generating a six-percent return to its owners/investors, they could argue that the landmark designation was costing them too much money. In turn, this triggered another provision in the law: the LPC had six months to find an alternate buyer for a landmarked structure who would preserve it.

Under this provision, the commission had already had one major success: the Astor Library on Lafayette Street. The library had been among the first buildings to be designated a landmark in October 1965, but was in a terrible state of disrepair. As with the Jerome mansion, the owners—in this case, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—had moved out, leaving a prospective buyer in the wings who had plans to tear the building down. Spurred by the pre-landmark law success of saving the old Jefferson Market Courthouse (right) so it could be "adaptively reused" as a new branch of the New York Public Library, the LPC searched for an entity willing to move in to the Astor Library space. Luckily, Joseph Papp, founder of Shakespeare in the Park, was in the market for a permanent home to expand his theatrical offerings and struck a deal. With help from the city, he took over the old library, gutted it, and had Giorgio Cavaglieri (the same architect who converted the Jefferson Market space) turn it into the Public Theater.

With the Jerome mansion, the commission was not so lucky. While Fishbach and Edwards extended the commission's search period many times, the LPC could find no one like Papp to rescue the home. In April 1967, the owners filed a motion for a permit to demolish. In September, the Department of Buildings granted the permit and within weeks the building was razed to make way for the New York Merchandise Mart.

Preservationists mourned the loss of another piece of New York's history, but there was one silver lining. While the mansion was gone, Judge Marks's 1966 decision had upheld the validity of landmarking. The question now was: how many more buildings would have their designations reversed?

A portion of Stone Street, as seen in April 1912, that was obliterated by 85 Broad Street. Photo courtesy Museum of the City of New York.

When the 1965 landmarks law was being drafted, pressure from real estate interests curtailed how the commission could work. As the law was originally written, designation hearings were to be held over an 18-month period, after which time there would be a three-year moratorium on new designations. Following that, the LPC would have six months to make designations before being forced to take another three years off. This pressure spurred the LPC to work quickly—much more quickly than would be possible today—designating a slew of buildings during that first 18-month wave. While some structures were picked for their historical significance, others made the list because they were the last remaining examples of a type or architectural style.

The site of the Stadt Huis. Photo by Robert Bracklow, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Such was the case with a Federal-era commercial building at 71 Pearl Street near Coenties Slip, which stood on the spot once occupied by the Stadt Huis, the original Dutch city hall. In its designation report (PDF) in 1966, the Landmarks Preservation Commission noted:

This restored late Federal commercial building of 1826 has three handsome arched windows extending across the second floor and two arched windows and a door at the first floor. It is the only known example of a building with arches at both floors of that period surviving in Manhattan….

At the same time that the commission was landmarking buildings throughout the Financial District, however, the area was also experiencing a building boom. Following the completion of One Chase Manhattan Plaza in 1961, David Rockefeller spearheaded a move to lure more financial firms back from Midtown. In 1967, the Marine Midland Bank by Gordon Bunschaft of Skidmore Owings and Merrill was completed at 140 Broadway; that same year, construction began on the massive World Trade Center complex a block away.

Nestled amidst these new skyscrapers was a New York City icon: the Singer Tower, which had been the world's tallest skyscraper when it opened in 1906. Having been acquired by US Steel a few years earlier, plans were underway to demolish the tower to build the company's new headquarters, today known as One Liberty Plaza. Though preservationists rallied to have the Singer Tower designated a landmark, the LPC hesitated. Having been unable to find an appropriate buyer for the Jerome mansion, the LPC was leery of designating the Singer Tower only to have to find a new buyer willing to move in and preserve it. Instead, the commission declined to save it and it fell to the wrecking ball in 1968. To this day, it remains the tallest building in the world ever intentionally demolished.

While this drama was playing out on lower Broadway, Lehman Brothers was acquiring a parcel of nineteenth century buildings on Pearl Street, with the intention of building a new headquarters. Among the structures Lehman Brothers purchased was the recently designated 71 Pearl Street, the only landmark on the block. To build its skyscraper, the company would need to tear the landmark down.

Lehman pleaded its hardship case to the LPC. The bad publicity over the Singer Tower's demolition (and the ongoing struggle to save the landmarked Sailors Snug Harbor on Staten Island) lead the commissioners to adopt a compromise. The commission told Lehman Brothers that as long as it was willing to dismantle 71 Pearl Street's facade and rebuild it later in another location, they could proceed with their plans. Additionally, since the building was rumored to include portions of the Stadt Huis foundations, the LPC also asked for time to do a very limited archaeological excavation at the site.

The path of Stone Street through 85 Broad. Photo by James Nevius.

Under the auspices of the commission, Regina Kellerman and Joseph Shelley led a dig at the site in the summer of 1970. On May 30, 1970, the New York Times trumpeted, "Dutch City Hall Here Believed Found":

Working in an excavation in front of 71 Pearl Street… [Shelley and Kellerman] have found a section of wall, a staircase, fragments of pottery, nails, clay pipes and sections of Dutch roofing tile…. "We'll need further evidence to say with positive assurance that we've found the original Stadthuis," [Shelley] said in an interview yesterday. "But we're pretty sure that's it. We are indeed excited."

Not long after Kellerman and Shelley's small dig was finished, 71 Pearl Street was carefully demolished and put in storage on a pier at South Street Seaport—just as Lehman Brothers was having second thoughts about the project. With New York's economy continuing to sour in the early 1970s, the company scrapped their plan to build a skyscraper, and instead, the Stadt Huis lot and the other properties were paved over and turned into a parking lot.

While it seemed at the time that 71 Pearl Street had been torn down for no good reason—except, perhaps, for the archaeological survey—it spurred the LPC to think more creatively about preserving landmarks. In 1971, when Manhattan Community College began construction on Washington Street in Tribeca, the facades of a number of landmarked Federal-era houses were moved to Harrison Street and rebuilt there. At the same time, a cast-iron storefront by James Bogardus, a pioneer in that medium, was dismantled. (Today, few Bogardus buildings remain; the landmarked 85 Leonard Street is a standout.) As they'd mandated with 71 Pearl, the LPC instructed the owners to put the Bogardus facade in storage for later re-erection at a suitable location. This turned out to be a lousy idea. Stored in a open lot, the scrap metal proved too tempting for thieves and it was soon snatched up. Today, one lone spandrel remains from the Bogardus building; it's currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York's "Saving Place" exhibition.

When the Lehman Brothers lots were finally sold in the late 1970s to the Dollar Savings Bank, the 71 Pearl Street facade was discovered to be missing—just as with the Bogardus building, it had been stolen from the pier. Even worse, someone might simply have thrown it away.

This turn of events put the new owners of the space in a jam: there was a lien on the property that they could not remove. Emboldened by a decade that seen the strengthening of the LPC's power (most significantly in the US Supreme Court decision in 1978 upholding the preservation of Grand Central Terminal), the commission negotiated two significant concession from the bank.

The first was to preserve the entire block of Stone Street—the city's first paved street—which would have been obliterated by the new skyscraper. To this day, that block is incorporated into the lobby of the building (85 Broad Street, former home of Goldman Sachs), which had to be built at odd angles in order to accommodate Stone Street's original path, and remains a pedestrian thoroughfare.

Second, the commission negotiated to have the bank pay for a more extensive archaeological dig—a project which would not only confirm Kellerman and Shelley's 1970 work at the Stadt Huis, but would also look for any other significant remains in the block before construction began. The team, led by archaeologists Nan Rothschild and Diane diZerega Wall, embarked on the largest archaeological dig in the city's history. In all, the team was to have less than four months at the site, and would have to work quickly and strategically—in constantly falling temperatures as winter approached—to discover what remnants of New Amsterdam lay beneath the parking lot's asphalt surface. At the site of 71 Pearl Street, the dig was pretty much a bust: no new artifacts, no foundations, and no masonry from the Stadt Huis. Moreover, Rothschild and Wall came to the conclusion that what Regina Kellerman and Joseph Shelley had uncovered in 1970 was, in fact, parts of a later building on the site, and not the 1641 former city hall.

Still, the excavations were far from a failure. Over two tons of artifacts were brought to light in the Stadt Huis block, everything from floral and faunal remains to coins, buttons, clay pipes, building materials, and china. Portions of the building that stood next to the Stadt Huis—a 1670 tavern built by English Colonial Governor Francis Lovelace—were uncovered, the 17th-century foundations still standing. This is the oldest building excavated on Manhattan and one of the only remaining architectural links to the city's earliest history. After much heated discussion with Dollars Savings Bank, the archaeological team was given a 25-day extension to finish excavating the Lovelace Tavern, and the bank agreed to keep the reconstructed foundation walls on view in the plaza of its new tower.

The foundations of the Lovelace Tavern remain on view at 85 Broad Street to this day, tucked away beneath Plexiglas (right), a memorial to an era that has mostly faded away. While New York still pales in comparison to European cities in the amount of archaeological excavation at building sites, the commission's insistence on it at 85 Broad set an important precedent. Today, the interpretive display on Pearl Street serves as a reminder that, despite their early failings, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has forged a path over the last fifty years toward not just the memorialization of building facades, but as an agency of supreme importance to understanding the city's history.

These days, revocation of landmark status is rare. As the law has evolved over the past five decades, so have the criteria for landmark rescission (PDF). The most recent building to apply for a hardship revocation was Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on the Lower East Side, though in the face public opposition they quickly—though perhaps not permanently—backed down. In 2008, the O'Toole building at St. Vincent's Hospital had its landmark designation rescinded due to economic hardship, but the move was too little, too late for the hospital, which soon closed its doors. Ironically, the hospital's closing saved the building, which has been retrofitted as an emergency medical building. Rescission comes most often when a building is on its last legs, such as Staten Island's New Brighton Village Hall. One of the very first landmarks designated in 1965, it suffered fire damage in 1969 and then decades of neglect before having its landmark status rescinded. It was demolished in 2004.

—Photo of the Leonard Jerome mansion c. 1875 courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York. Photo of the Jefferson Market Courthouse by Berenice Abbott, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]
· Landmarks at 50 [Curbed NY]