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My Favorite Things: Gone But Not Forgotten Edition

This is the latest installment of Off the Grid’s series, “My Favorite Things,” in which we showcase some of our very favorite spots around the neighborhood, highlighting the incredible architecture, history, people, and businesses of the Village, East Village, and NoHo.

As the old saying goes, you win some, you lose some.  That’s particularly true in preservation, where sometimes in spite of the most heroic of efforts and compelling of cases, historic treasures succumb to the wrecking ball.

I’m frequently asked, “Which fight do you most regret losing; which building do you mourn the loss of most?”  It often comes as a surprise that the answer, inevitably, is a parking garage — one which seemed to almost eerily peer into the future.

The Tunnel Garage, 1922-2006.

The Tunnel Garage, ca. 1940.

The Tunnel Garage, at Broome and Thompson Streets, where the South Village meets SoHo, was no ordinary parking garage.  Built in 1922, it was a thing of extraordinary beauty, a sublime ode to the dawn of the automobile age and to the engineering marvel of its time which was the Holland Tunnel.

Designed by architect Hector Hamilton for Charlton Street physician George Stivers, the Tunnel Garage’s eye-catching design is generally referred to as “Art Deco,” as it embodies the streamlined forms, casement industrial windows, terra cotta polychromy, and elegant graphic lettering typical of the style.  However, in one of many examples of the garage’s extraordinary nature, it was built a full three years before the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes from which ‘Art Deco’ gets its name, and from which the style’s characteristic elements supposedly crystalized.

This was only one of many ways in which the Tunnel Garage appeared to peer into the future.  The garage was named for the nearby Holland Tunnel (which was itself named for its chief engineer, Clifford Millburn Holland, who died during the tunnel’s construction, rather than for the country which first established European settlement in Lower Manhattan, as is often assumed).  However, the tunnel itself did not actually open until 1927, five years after the garage (though construction had begun in 1922, and had been in the planning stages since at least 1906).

Tunnel Garage detail.

When built, the Holland Tunnel was the longest vehicular tunnel in the world, and the first vehicular connection across the Hudson (the Holland Tunnel was designated a National Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1982 and a National Historic Landmark in 1993). It appears the Tunnel Garage was intended to, among other things, accommodate drivers coming into Manhattan, allowing you to park your car there and then explore the city further by foot, streetcar, subway, or elevated train.

The medallion.

In another oddly prescient quirk, the Tunnel Garage was adorned with a rounded terra cotta medallion showing a car emerging from a tunnel, presumably the nearby, not-yet-completed Holland Tunnel.  However, the type of car shown in the medallion has been the subject of some dispute.  Some assert  this was a Model T — the very first car to be mass-produced, which revolutionized the automobile industry, consumerism, and the physical landscape of not only America but much of the world.

More Tunnel Garage details.

However, as some auto-enthusiasts have pointed out, the T, which first came into production in 1908, typically had a much slighter design with smaller wheels and fenders than the model shown in the medallion, which appears at first glance to be more similar to the Model A — the Model T’s later and somewhat more substantial cousin.  However, the Model A did not come on the market until 1927, and while we have not been able to confirm with absolute certainty that the medallion appeared on the Tunnel Garage when it opened in 1922, the addition of such an element five years later would certainly be unusual, and the rounded circular pediment piece in in the garage in which the medallion was found seemed to be designed to embrace such an element.  One possible explanation: the Model T did stay in production until 1927, and the later models appear to have, at least in some cases, included the larger wheels, headlights, and fenders generally considered more characteristic of the Model A.

A classic 1910 Model T (l.): a Model A (m.); a late Model T (r.).

Regardless of the car’s make (and whether it was a vision of the future or a romantic snapshot of the present), the multi-colored terra cotta medallion was one of many elements which made the Tunnel Garage so iconic and beloved.  Sadly, the medallion was covered by advertising signage, as was much of the facade of the garage, beginning in the early 1980’s, and the garage’s condition was allowed to deteriorate, its exterior covered in graffiti.

However, even at the worst of times, the garage’s bold graphic lettering, its green and orange terra cotta ornamental accents, its original casement windows, and its striking rounded corner, remained intact.

Tunnel Garage ca. 2005, covered in grafitti and billboards.

In 2005, a new owner announced plans to demolish the building to make way for condos.  The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, neighbors under the umbrella of the “Friends of the Tunnel Garage,” the SoHo Alliance, and legions of historic preservationists rallied to save the building, calling upon the City to landmark it (read the NY Times story HERE).  Support came from as far as Art Deco capitals Miami Beach and Los Angeles, from which local preservation organizations were compelled to call upon New York City to do what had been done successfully in these other cities, preserve and re-use these early Art Deco treasures.  GVSHP even got the building determined eligible for the State and National Register of Historic Places, which would have qualified the owner for tax breaks and potentially even financial aid for restoring and preserving the building.

Rally to save the Tunnel Garage, March 2006.

Unfortunately, these pleas feel on deaf ears.  The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to even hold a hearing on designation, and in April of 2006, the owner moved ahead with demolition.  Adding insult to injury, the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals also gave the developer a zoning variance, based upon a supposed “hardship,” allowing the construction of the 9-story condo you see on the site today.

  • Tunnel Garage demolition, 2006.
  • Further Tunnel Garage demolition

Ironically, it was only as the building was being prepared for demolition that the billboards and advertising signs were removed, revealing it in its full glory for the first time in nearly a quarter century.

GVSHP and other advocates called for the the salvaging and preservation of the Tunnel Garage’s iconic terra cotta medallion.  After significant lobbying, the owner agreed.  However, while we hoped to see the medallion installed in the small park across the street for the public to enjoy in perpetuity, the developer chose instead to mount it on the roof of the new building, where it can only be seen from a distance (or, by the condo dwellers who can access the roof).  Additionally, because it originally was mounted on a curved surface as opposed to the current flat one, like a flattened orange skin, the medallion had to chopped up into pieces and spread out across the surface of its new perch, losing much of the integrity, as well as the visibility, it originally had.

55 Thompson condo, which replaced the Tunnel Garage (above), with close up of "preserved" medallion, on the private rooftop.

The Tunnel Garage was located within GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District, two-thirds of which the city has still refused to act upon.  If you would like to help prevent the rest of the South Village befalling the same fate as the Tunnel Garage, click HERE.

The Tunnel Garage — a romantic vision of the future from deep in our past. Gone but not forgotten, and certainly still one of my favorite things.


9 responses to “My Favorite Things: Gone But Not Forgotten Edition

  1. Nice job, Andrew. A pity you couldn’t save this structure, but the condo tenants on Thompson are probably happy to reside there.

  2. Thank you for keeping the memories alive. Every time I pass by the nondescript new building that replaced it , I mourn the demolition of the Tunnel Garage. By the way, the rendition of the new building pictured above is much nicer than the actuality. No trees. Just very bare.

  3. No doubt the condo residents are happy to reside there, but it wasn’t an all or nothing choice: tear down the Tunnel Garage and these people will have a home, or leave it up and make those people homeless. Anyone who is now living in that condo had plenty of other options. I feel especially angry about the Tunnel Garage because I met the developer or one of the developers — on an architectural tour. He was an architect by training, but seemed unable to comprehend why anyone would care about this building. So now we have another bland palazzo, with its trendy curve and the rectangular penthouse that’s plunked on top of the curve. More housing for the rich. The developers’ greed and the indifference of the city and of the Landmarks Commission are sadly typical of the current climate, in which anything modest, unpretentious, and quirky is caviar to the general, to the tin-eyed Mammon-worshippers. Thanks for the article —it made me feel better to know there are fellow-mourners.

  4. Dear Andrew…

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute to the Tunnel Garage. I’m sometimes baffled by the Landmarks Commission’s decisions regarding our treasures from the past. The design could have easily incorporated the Tunnel Garage’s facade, with so little challenge for the architect, especially considering that the new building has a rounded corner.The new building design isn’t awful, though I do agree with Myra Malkin in noting how the clunky box on top clashes with the lower floors.

    Harry Schroder
    30 Charlton Street

  5. It really was a blow to see the Tunnel Garage go, and it points up how important it is to fight even harder to preserve the notable structures we still have in the Village. It’s incomprehensible the Landmarks Commission couldn’t even be bothered to hold hearings on the Garage; and the notion of a hardship variance for the “developer” is ludicrous (I think “development” is much too kind a term for what some would call wanton destruction of a community’s heritage for personal gain).

    I was also sorry to see the “modernization” of the car wash on the next block over, which obliterated the last traces of some art-deco ornamentation dating from when the car wash was a weigh-station for trucks entering the Tunnel.

    Well, at least the horrific luxury-condo shortage we’ve all been suffering from in the South Village has been alleviated slightly. Guess we can thank the Landmarks Commission for that.

  6. I’d discovered the Tunnel Garage in 2003, just wandering around The Village with a new digital camera. At Thompson and Broome, the light was perfect, and it highlighted the building in a way which was unforgettable. I recognized the building’s special aura at once. Here’s the published shot: http://fav.me/d54c8pd

    It’s a tribute now, I guess, one I’m honored to have captured.

    Developers see only the practical, the new, the profitable. Having any inner sense of history or aesthetic is virtually meaningless to them. Remember Penn Station.

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