This is part of Off the Grid’s “My Favorite Things” series.
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.
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 crystallized.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.