On Tuesday, April 1, 2014, the Municipal Art Society testified before the Landmarks Preservation Commission against a pivotal Certificate of Appropriateness application to demolish two buildings at 51 and 53 West 19th Street within the Ladies’ Mile Historic District (see testimony here
The proposal was to replace two buildings described in the 1989 historic district designation as “early 20th century commercial style” with a 14-story contemporary building. Smith-Miller & Hawkinson Architects maintained that the new structure would have a more positive effect on the historic district.
MAS believes these buildings are integral components of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District. Built in 1854 and redesigned in 1924, their altered, vernacular style represents one of the area’s four major architectural development periods and embodies the history of smaller industry that proliferated along the side streets between 5th and 6th Avenues after the fashionable shopping district moved further uptown. Vernacular industrial and commercial buildings on the side streets, as well as avenue retail palaces, contribute to the area’s unique character. This remains the case despite the poor condition of the two buildings. MAS suggested that a more appropriate application would include restoration of these historic buildings with perhaps an addition.
Additionally, MAS is concerned that allowing the demolition of contributing buildings would establish a troubling precedent. The cumulative effect of demolishing low-scale historic buildings that contribute to the sense of place would forever change this and other historic districts.
Community Board 5, Historic Districts Council, The Society for the Architecture of the City, Flatiron Alliance, along with other preservation organizations, community representatives, and neighborhood residents expressed similar concerns in their testimony. The commissioners, voting against the proposal, stated that it was LPC’s obligation to protect contributing buildings in historic districts, and that there was no evidence that these buildings were beyond restoration. Chair Tierney and other commissioners reiterated that a historic district is not simply about individual style but a sense of place and that LPC is not charged with providing for the highest and best use of a site; they had not been persuaded that there was any justification for the demolition of 51 and 53 West 19th Street. Overall, most commended Mr. Smith-Miller on his thoughtful design and presentation, and said they would like seeing it built somewhere other than the Ladies’ Mile Historic District.