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Recladding & Reevaluating

2 Fifth Avenue
2 Fifth Avenue

Like all other applications for work on landmarked properties in Greenwich Village, GVSHP has been keeping tabs on the progress of the recently-approved plans to re-clad the large mid-century white-brick apartment building at 2 Fifth Avenue, just north Washington Square Park. Although decidedly more modern than the historic nineteenth century townhouses in the area, the application to replace the deteriorating brick façade needed to go through the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) because the building falls within the boundaries of the Greenwich Village Historic District.

2 5th Avenue
2 5th Avenue as viewed from Washington Square Park

2 Fifth Avenue was designed by the firm of Emery Roth & Sons and was constructed between 1951 and 1952 along Fifth Avenue between Washington Square North and West 8th Street. The approximately twenty-story building contains multiple components, including a low, five-story wing that runs along Washington Square North, clad not in white, but in a red brick that echoes (albeit simplistically) the color palette and scale of the neighboring Greek-revival  style homes on the block, many of which are now owned by NYU.

Large, unadorned glazed-brick apartment blocks like this and others throughout the city became new symbols of modern middle-class living when they were first constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. As the years have passed, these structures which were once at the forefront of economical residential design have begun to show their age with crumbling, patched facades and sagging balconies. In many cases, it’s now been over fifty years since many of these buildings were constructed, and preservation groups and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission are still grappling with how to deal with many of these landmarked behemoths—they express a design-aesthetic that has long been out of popular fashion but do remain poignant architectural symbols of their time.

27 East 65th Street being transformed from sky blue to red brick. Image via The City Review.

The Upper East Side contains a large concentration of these glazed-brick apartment blocks, and as a result, it’s been an area where some of the uncertainty about the historic value of these buildings has played out. One of the most vibrant examples of this was the plan to re-clad the apartment tower at 27 East 65th Street (at Madison Avenue). Built in 1962 and swathed in striking sky blue colored glazed brick (unlike many of its more generic white brick-clad contemporaries), the building was included within the Upper East Side historic district when it was designated by the City in 1981. By the early 2000s plans were in the works to remove and replace the blue bricks with more reserved red brick. Though included in the historic district and certainly a rare colorful example of mid-century residential design, the structure was classified as not contributing to the district and the LPC approved the brick replacement plan in 2003.

But just five years later and several blocks to the northwest, a similar proposal to re-clad the white glazed-brick co-op tower at 900 5th Avenue (at 71st Street) would have replaced its facade with gray brick. The LPC rejected the color-change plan—a decision which was vocally supported by local preservation groups—and the building was required to maintain the current brick color.

Detail of Manhattan House (image via LPC)

To the south, the full-block Manhattan House building between East 65th/66th Streets and 2nd/3rd Avenues—built between 1947 and 1951—is one of the earliest examples of the white-brick design and was recently designated an individual landmark by the LPC.

In the Village, GVSHP recently helped win landmark designation for the I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers complex at Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place. Though clad in concrete and not glazed-brick, the three towers and massive Picasso sculpture were one of the few modernist housing developments landmarked by the City. Just to the north of the Silver Towers superblock, the Washington Square Village complex, which echoes the influential Unité d’Habitation design and contains one of the city’s earliest ‘green-roof’ park spaces, is under threat from expansion plans by NYU that would add two curving towers to the central greenspace. The State Historic Preservation Office ruled this year that the entire Washington Square Village complex, including its gardens, qualify for the State and National Register of Historic Places.

One of the Silver Towers complex buildings and Picasso sculpture.

As we move further into the 21st century, ideas about what constitutes a historically significant structure or neighborhood are constantly reevaluated, become more complex, and reflect the ever-changing physical and cultural development of the city itself. You can see this reflected in many of GVSHP’s recent proposals for landmark designation, which are a far cry from the genteel townhouses of the West Village that were originally landmarked by the city in 1969. In addition to the modernist blocks of Silver Towers, GVSHP’s proposed South Village historic district below Washington Square Park is one of the first landmark proposals in the city to expressly recognize the immigrant experience and the importance of working-class architecture, i.e., 19th and 20th century tenement buildings. Our ongoing research and advocacy efforts in the East Village look to examine, protect, and celebrate this neighborhood and its buildings, many of which are incredibly significant in terms of New York City’s immigrant, labor, religious, LGBT, and artistic history.

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