Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Building Restorations

Yesterday I mentioned that in Manhattan - unlike many areas in suburbia - buildings are more often refurbished and restored than torn down. This is particularly true when one is working in an architecturally significant section of the city in which razing a landmark structure in favor of a glass and steel tower would only invite controversy and public outrage. More sensitive developers have realized that by gutting an existing but blighted architectural gem, especially one that has been under-utilized or semi-derelict for years, they can preserve the aesthetic continuity of a neighborhood while banking some goodwill among residents and potential patrons.

On 6th Avenue, for example, from about 18th to 23rd Street, there's an old retail district defined by some architectural beauties that date to the late 19th century. When new they often housed large, multi-floored department stores, one of the mercantile innovations of an era that gave us Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck. Now quite a few have been rescued and redeveloped. Who cares if a model of Victorian design now houses an Old Navy, Bed Bath & Beyond, and a Marshall's? They were constructed originally to house stores and they're certainly preferable to the characterless boxes of the strip mall or bland storefronts of the average mall! (There's a section of Broadway from approximately Ninth Street to Madison Square and the Flatiron Building that is very similar to this part of 6th Avenue. Often referred to as the "Ladies" Mile" because of its retail focus, this area was a focal point of Gilded Age New York . . . the city seen in the works of Edith Wharton, for example.)

I find it interesting how many of these buildings exist as organic structures: they evolve, enjoy good times, fall into disrepair and neglect, are rescued, restored, and rejoin the vibrant life of the city in life cycle that in some cases spans well over 100 years. All too often, buildings in suburbia are bulldozed within less than 20 years of their construction. But this harsh reality isn't surprising when one considers how little thought went into their design. In contrast, this building on 6th Avenue has been used for retail pursuits for more than a century. Most recently its ground floor held shoe and clothing stores, while its rather sad looking upper floors apparently housed a rabbit warren of odd offices and apartments. A couple of years ago a board went up outside the building displaying a developer's plans to return the structure to its Victorian splendor, including restoration of two gold domes that anchored the north and south corners of the facade. Who knew the building had gold domes? I guess at some point several decades ago they had fallen into such a derelict state that they had been removed altogether. Now the restoration is nearly complete. And like so many New York buildings, this will be used for a combination of retail and residential interests. (I suspect that the condos will be astronomically priced, given the skyrocketing prices for housing stock in Chelsea. I think a duplex that includes one of the turreted rooms under the domes would make a nice home studio!)

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