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NYU Buildings Worth Landmarking, Not Protesting

NYU's Vanderbilt Hall
NYU’s Vanderbilt Hall

Here at GVSHP, we’ve been poring over the new South Village Historic District designation report, and it has some wonderful facts and even a few surprises we thought we’d share.

Earlier this month, New York State Supreme Court Justice Donna Mills delivered great news by announcing her legal decision that several of the pieces of public open space the City had given NYU for its massive Village expansion plan were actually parkland, and could not be given away in this manner. As “Off the Grid” readers know, we do not always agree with the university’s approach to architecture and development.

But life is ironic, and while we’re relieved that Judge Mills has put these significant impediments in place to NYU’s expansion plan, we’re also happy that some previously controversial NYU buildings recently were landmarked. They are included in the South Village Historic District approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on December 17.  In fact, GVSHP fought very hard to get the landmark district to include two NYU buildings that initially were excluded from that landmark district.

One is Vanderbilt Hall, built to house the law school, which fills the block bounded by Washington Square South, MacDougal Street, West Third Street, and Sullivan Street. Opened in 1950, this building initially was protested by local residents because it entailed the razing of all that was there, including the “Genius Row” on Washington Square South, where notable writers such as Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser and Eugene O’Neill all lived. But Villagers pushed back, demanding a design that was in character with the neighborhood in terms of scale, materials, and form.  For once, NYU listened (or more precisely, the then-President of the NYU Law School, a long-time Village resident, listened), and once Vanderbilt Hall was built, locals came to appreciate the charms of the contextual, neo-Georgian structure designed by Otto Eggers. Given NYU’s development mania, protection of this fine building also prevents the possible redevelopment of the site into an exponentially taller building — zoning rules would allow the construction of a 300-foot tall building there.

NYU's Kevorkian Center
NYU’s Kevorkian Center

The second NYU building is the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, which occupies the southeast corner of Washington Square South and Sullivan Street. Designed by Philip Johnson, this stark structure appeals to fans of modernism. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger called it an “urbanistic success” with a “powerful monumentality.” And it, too, has the advantage of not being 300 feet high.

Additional NYU buildings within the 250-building historic district are the Filomen D’Agostino Residence Hall at 110 West Third Street, completed in 1987, and Wilf Hall, at 139 MacDougal Street, completed in 2011. It’s ironic, again, that the latter building is landmarked now. GVSHP unsuccessfully called for the landmarking of the Provincetown Playhouse, which NYU demolished in 2009. Yet it retained a portion of the famous theater’s façade in the new, six-story, postmodern building by Morris Adjmi.  Most importantly, without landmarking, NYU could easily raze Wilf Hall at any point in the future and erect a significantly larger building, or add additional floors on top (in fact, when NYU announced its plans for the relatively modestly scaled but landmark-destroying building, GVSHP asked NYU if they would commit to not adding on to the building or replacing it with a larger one in the future; the university adamantly refused).

As the South Village Historic District designation report puts it, “NYU has played an important role in shaping the physical environment of the South Village by its construction of large-scale buildings, which often resulted in community-led battles against the demolition of historic buildings.”

We wouldn’t mind if that statement could be confined to “history” rather than continually repeating in the present.

You can read more about what the South Village Historic District landmark designation report has to say about the history of the neighborhood and its defining characteristics here.

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