July 2017
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Protect the NYPL’s Rose Reading Room

The Rose Reading Room at The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan.

The Rose Reading Room at The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan.

Full Title: MAS Testimony to the Landmarks Preservation Commission regarding the Proposed Designation of the Main Reading Room and Catalog Room of the New York Public Library

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) strongly urges the designation of the Rose Main Reading Room and the Bill Blass Catalog Room in the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. Nearly three years ago, the designation of both these rooms was halted due to critical restoration efforts. Despite their reopening nine months ago, these unique Beaux-Arts interiors remain unprotected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

For generations, New Yorkers have flocked to the Library, a 1911 Beaux-Arts masterpiece. Part of what makes the monumental building a work of art is its completeness of vision. The architect duo, Carrère and Hastings, not only designed the grand exterior, but also every detail of the interior, down to the tables, chairs, lamps, and chandeliers. Work on the ornate interior, featuring white marble arches and ionic columns, plaster coffered ceilings, and painted murals by James Wall Finn, took a total of five years to complete.

Deborah, Jonathan F.P., Samuel Priest, & Adam Raphael Rose Main Reading Room

The Main Reading Room is a marvel of architecture, one of the largest rooms in the United States without a dome, interior columns, or steel-reinforced walls to support the ceiling. Plaster rosettes and a recreation of the original billowing cloud murals by James Wall Finn adorn the length of the Beaux-Arts gilded ceiling, while marble arched bays rise up to meet it. Wooden shelves outline the perimeter and furnishings designed by Carrère and Hastings fill the hall.

Bill Blass Public Catalog Room

The lofty, airy Catalog Room sits between the designated McGraw Rotunda and the undesignated Rose Main Reading Room. Like its neighbor, the room features ornate ceilings, large bronze chandeliers, a sky mural by James Wall Finn, wooden bookcases, and great arched windows rising multiple stories.

The 1974 designation report for Astor Hall and McGraw Rotunda states, “The interior of this great building is as magnificent as its exterior.” MAS could not agree more. These unprotected spaces endure as a civic beacon of the city’s democratic dissemination of knowledge to this day. In fact, The New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman singled out the recently restored Rose Main Reading Room as one of New York’s “most beloved public spaces” of 2016.

To secure these historic rooms for future generations, MAS urges the Commission to designate the Rose Reading Room and the Bill Blass Catalog Room as interior landmarks.

East Harlem Zoning Proposal Would Displace Neighborhood Residents

Full Title: MAS Comments for Manhattan Borough President on the East Harlem Rezoning Proposal, CEQR No. 17DCP048M, Manhattan, NY and the Draft East Harlem Housing Plan

Position

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) has a number of concerns that we urge the City to address before we can support the East Harlem Rezoning proposal and the East Harlem Housing Plan. We are apprehensive about issues specific to East Harlem (the undercounting of available development sites, potential displacement of local residents, and lack of consideration for shadow impacts and public space needs) as well as broader matters of long-term affordability and preservation of existing units.

MAS commends City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who served as Chairs for the East Harlem Neighborhood Steering Committee and helped develop the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. Several of our concerns could be addressed using the recommendations in the Neighborhood Plan and the Steering Committee’s public engagement process.

Background

The New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) has proposed a series of land use actions, including zoning map amendments, zoning text amendments, and amendments to the Milbank Frawley Circle-East Urban Renewal Plan, that would affect a 96-block area in the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan Community District 11. In addition, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has issued a draft Housing Plan for East Harlem (Housing Plan) that seeks to preserve existing and development new affordable units on City-owned property within the rezoning project area. The six sites identified in HPD’s plan would result in an estimated 2,439 affordable units.

Almost 40 percent of East Harlem households have an annual income below $24,500 and the neighborhood as a whole has a median income of $30,973. The addition of approximately 6,000 new residents to this historically low income area has the potential to drastically change the socioeconomic conditions and character of the neighborhood.

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President’s Letter, June 2017

President of The Municipal Art Society of New York Elizabeth Goldstein

Elizabeth Goldstein

My husband and I decided to travel by bus across Brooklyn neighborhoods last Sunday. It was either that or brave closed subway stations and a long walk to go “faster,” well maybe. We departed from Sunset Park on the B11 and switched to the B16, transferring in the heart of Borough Park with our final destination being Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.

It was NYC Pride Week, but you wouldn’t have known it until we got to Prospect Park where celebrants were out in force on a stunning summer evening. The trip was a study in contrasts and reinforced my long-held belief that, although New York is ONE political entity, it is really a city of cities – small, and sometimes large, enclaves of very different worlds butted up against each other in ways that might have swarms of sociologists agog for years.

We traveled from a Mexican, pan-Latin neighborhood through the third-largest Chinatown in NYC, from Borough Park to Little India to West Indian neighborhoods. And literally the distance of an avenue block can mean the difference between Chinese noodles and Glatt Kosher and curried goat, and back again. It is the glory of New York, that rapid-fire contrast of ethnicities and cultures.

But I also noticed as I traveled through these vibrant neighborhoods how beautiful they are. Even the dense or low income neighborhoods are home to lovely old trees and streets brimming with interesting architecture. Many of these neighborhoods have been down-zoned during the last two mayoral administrations, but still have space in the zoning envelope to grow. It made me wonder how these neighborhoods may evolve as new immigrants arrive and find their niche. One of our city’s greatest assets has been the fact that “new” New Yorkers have always been able to find a place here, sometimes moving into neighborhoods that were left by generations who came before them, often of very different origin. Think of the layers of inhabitants of the Lower East Side, for instance.

Is this moment of growth any different? The answer is yes, because this growth is happening outside Manhattan. The Bronx is not only the fast growing borough, it is the fasting growing county in the state. Queens and Brooklyn follow it in that order. And if you look at the top neighborhoods across the country that have had the greatest number of large apartment complexes built, NYC has eight in the top 50. Long Island City is building 66 percent more units than the next neighborhood down the list – Downtown Los Angeles!

It is a symbol of our humanity that we both welcome and worry about this increasing density. But if New York is going to remain a place for the world to call home, we need to continue to encourage and enable exciting, vibrant, affordable places for people to live. If not, we risk losing the very thing that makes New York so effervescent. So as we celebrate this Fourth of July weekend, let’s remember that although our founders could never have imagined a city (or country) as vast and diverse as the one I saw out my bus window last week, the foundation they built is what made all of this possible.

Elizabeth's signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President
The Municipal Art Society of New York

Monument of the Month: Henry Ward Beecher Monument

The Henry Ward Beecher Monument after its restoration

The Henry Ward Beecher Monument after its restoration

Thirty years ago, The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) launched the Adopt-A-Monument program in collaboration with the NYC Public Design Commission and the NYC Parks Department, to secure private funding for the rescue of public art in danger of deterioration. To date, MAS’s Adopt programs have raised nearly $4 million dollars to conserve fifty-one works of art in all five boroughs. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the program, we are highlighting one restoration per month in 2017.

This summer a masterpiece in the American Renaissance style by the esteemed sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward (1830-1910) was restored through the Adopt program. The Henry Ward Beecher Monument, unveiled in 1891 at Borough Hall (relocated to Columbus Park in 1959), commemorates Beecher (1813-1887), an advocate of women’s suffrage, an agitator for the abolitionist movement, staunch supporter of the Union , and Senior Minister of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church for forty years. He overcame a childhood fear of public speaking to become one of this country’s most celebrated and accomplished preachers. Beecher’s father was the prominent Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher. One of his ten siblings was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the persuasive classic anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Social reform was at the heart of the Beecher family. The Independent, of which Beecher was contributing editor, took strong anti-slavery and women’s suffrage stances. In addition, Beecher’s popularity and ministry at Plymouth Church contributed much to Brooklyn’s growth, and his sermons and writings served as a barometer of social change in the second half of the nineteenth century. Plymouth Church continues as a vibrant, worshipping community committed to anti-human trafficking efforts.

Workers polish the Henry Ward Beecher Monument by hand during its restoration

During the restoration.

John Quincy Adams Ward, one of the most influential sculptors of his generation, was commissioned by the Beecher Statue Fund, to create an image of the theologian representative of Beecher’s character. From his studio on West 48th Street, Ward modeled Beecher’s remarkable portrait from a death mask that the sculptor, himself, had made on March 8, 1887. Wearing an Inverness cloak, Beecher stands in a classic pose. Expressive genre groups are on either side of the prodigious orator: a young black woman laying a palm branch at Beecher’s foot evokes his abolitionist sentiments; a small boy and girl placing a wreath on the pedestal symbolize his love for children. The figures rest on a handsome polished black pedestal designed by Richard Morris Hunt who frequently collaborated with his friend Ward (as in the Indian Hunter in Central Park among other important works).

A worker helps restore the Henry Ward Beecher Monument

More restoration.

The inscription on the pedestal poignantly reads:

Henry Ward Beecher, 1813-1887

“The grateful gift of the multitudes of all classes, creeds and conditions at home and abroad to honor the great apostle of the brotherhood of man.”

While the piece had been restored in 1989 as one of the original twenty monuments in the Adopt program, the Incralac coating applied to impede corrosion had failed and active green corrosion appeared where the coating had broken down. The figures revealed surface pitting and erosion caused by the relentless extremes of weather even with the annual maintenance the MAS has supervised.

The Henry Ward Beecher Monument before its restoration

The Henry Ward Beecher Monument before its restoration

The treatment was executed by Wilson Conservation, one of the leading sculpture conservation teams in the country, and took two months. MAS commissioned them, having worked with Wilson Conservation on other outstanding monuments including Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Admiral Farragut Monument in Madison Square Park, the James Gordon Bennett Monument in Herald Square, and the Evangeline Blashfield Fountain, Bridgemarket Plaza, at 59th Street.

The conservation project entailed stripping the bronze elements of the degraded Incralac with a methylene chloride stripper. The gel was applied with brushes and sat until softened before it was removed. The bronze was then pressure washed to remove traces of solvent and corrosion. Using traditional foundry patina chemicals, cupric nitrate, ferric nitrate and liver of sulfur, the bronze was repatinated. The elements were heated with a hand held torch and the patina chemicals were stippled on until the desired color and opacity was achieved. Three thin applications of clear microcrystalline paste wax were brushed on and hand buffed with cotton cloths and horse hair brushes. The open seam on the bronze palm frond was filled with an epoxy putty to stabilize it and to make it less noticeable. The fills were inpainted with acrylic paints and then wax coated to match the color of the adjacent surface.

To arrive at the historically correct patination color, the Wilsons and MAS’s Director of Public Art, Phyllis Cohen, did careful research on Ward’s original patination with the thoughtful guidance of Thayer Tolles, Curator of American Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art. The decision was made to return the monument to the original reddish-brown coloration. The Conservation Advisory Group of the Public Design Commission and Art & Antiquities, NYC Parks, confirmed the choice.

The Beecher monument conservation was made possible by a generous grant from the Paul & Klara Porzelt Foundation. Prior to adopting the Beecher Monument, the Porzelt Foundation provided major leadership gifts to the Adopt Program, invaluably helping to restore six masterpieces of public art in the American Renaissance style.

The Municipal Art Society is grateful for the collaboration of Plymouth Church for generously partnering with MAS and NYC Parks in planning the dedication ceremony and reception.

Brooklyn Landmark Endangered by School Construction Authority Proposal

Full title: MAS Comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed PS 557 by the New York City School Construction Authority, Community School District No. 15, Brooklyn, New York

Position

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) is deeply disappointed that these important historic structures have been allowed to deteriorate to their current state and restoration has been deemed infeasible by the School Construction Authority (SCA).

As we stated in our response to the June 1, 2016 Notice of Filing (NOF), MAS strongly opposed any plan that would involve the demolition of the 18th Police Precinct Station House and Stable, which are both listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places and are designated individual New York City landmarks. At the time, we urged the SCA to either pursue an alternate site for the school or preserve the two buildings and incorporate them into the new school design. We maintain this position today.

Comments and Recommendations

In addition, several critical concerns expressed by MAS remain unanswered and we have several comments and recommendations that we urge the SCA to consider and incorporate into a revised DEIS before the project moves to a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and further review by the City Council.

According to the NOF, SCA was required to conduct an alternative sites analysis for eight other potential sites for a school facility in Community School District No. 15. At the time of the issuance of the NOF, two sites (250-266 46th Street and 291-301 24th Street) remained under consideration by SCA and were undergoing “various studies” to determine if they were appropriate and could accommodate a small public school facility. SCA never provided a response to MAS’s inquiries regarding these sites. And neither the DEIS nor any supporting documentation addresses their status. Furthermore, neither the DEIS nor supporting documentation includes information about other sites in the area that were under consideration for a school site. Therefore, MAS urges that the revised DEIS include an appendix providing the full evaluation of these two sites and details on other potential school sites selected in Community School District No. 15 that were eliminated from consideration for the construction of a new school.

In addition, consideration of preserving or reuse of the stable has largely been ignored under the plan, the DEIS, and supporting documentation. The DEIS needs to be revised to include an evaluation of options for preserving the landmark stable.

We also find the DEIS Urban Design and Visual Resources section to be deficient in fully evaluating how the proposed project will incorporate the historic façade into the new building.

  • The DEIS should be revised to include interior and exterior conceptual renderings of the proposed school showing details how the existing historic structure will be incorporated into the design.
  • With consideration of the important role the 18th Police Precinct Station House and Stable has played in defining the character of the Sunset Park neighborhood, the DEIS Urban Design and Visual Resources and Neighborhood Character sections need to be revised to include a more detailed and rigorous evaluation of how the new building would be consistent with the design and character of the neighborhood.
  • The DEIS must be revised to include more detailed drawings of the massing of the new building. Figure 8-2 in the Urban Design and Visual Resources section of the DEIS is not sufficiently detailed.

As we stated in our comments on the NOF, we urge the SCA to enter into consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission regarding this project and disclose the correspondence in the revised DEIS.

We look forward to SCA’s responses to our concerns expressed herein.