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Why Isn’t It Landmarked?: 204 East 13th Street, Home To Jazz Great and Film History

Part of our blog series Why Isn’t This Landmarked?, where we look at buildings in our area we’re fighting to protect that are worthy of landmark designation, but somehow aren’t landmarked.

204 East 13th Street is a 4-story Neo-Grec style tenement built in 1875. The building has exceptionally vivid and intact architectural detailing on its cornice and lintels. Village Preservation has been campaigning for historic district designation for this and about 200 surrounding buildings located below Union Square.  If the beautifully intact architecture was not enough reason to preserve this building, then the great history found within surely makes it worthy of landmarking. The great jazz musician Randy Weston lived here in 1960s. During this time this section of the East Village was an epicenter of jazz and blues music in the United States, and in addition to Weston, Charlie “Bird” Parker and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter both called the neighborhood home.

Randy Weston

Randy Weston lived in 204 East 13th Street during the peak of his jazz career. Weston was a renowned jazz pianist who was greatly influenced by the traditional music of Africa. Weston played an important role in advancing the argument, now widely accepted, that the roots of jazz trace back to African music. Weston’s music prominently incorporated African elements to incorporate African culture into the American music scene. Some of his most popular compositions include “Hi-Fly,” “Little Niles,” and “Blue Moses.”

Weston and his daughter in Rabat.

Weston was not just a great jazz musician, but also a key political figure in the fight for global civil rights. As African countries started their fight for freedom from colonial exploitation in the mid-20th century, Weston themed his albums to salute the struggle for African independence.  His album “Uhuru Afrika” (Swahili for “Freedom Africa”) was released in 1960 and included lyrics written by Langston Hughes.  Sales of the record were banned in South Africa by its apartheid regime. In 1959, Weston became a leading member of the United Nations Jazz Society, which is a group that seeks to spread the love of jazz throughout the world. In 1961, he made his first African visit, traveling to Nigeria as part of the American Society for African Culture. It only took two more trips to Africa to convince Randy to make his stay more permanent. Having first arrived on a trip sponsored by the State Department, Weston moved to Morocco in 1968. He stayed for five years traveling throughout the country, first Rabat and then Tangier, running the African Rhythms Cultural Center, a performance venue that fostered artists from various traditions.

Mr. Weston’s musical accolades earned him Grammy nominations in 1973 for his album “Tanjah” (for best jazz performance by a big band) and in 1995 for “The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco” (in the best world music album category). The National Endowment for the Arts gave Mr. Weston its Jazz Masters award in 2001, the highest accolade available to a jazz artist in the United States. He was also voted into DownBeat magazine’s hall of fame in 2016.

After contributing many decades of musical direction, genius, and social justice work, Randy passed at the age of 92 at his home in Brooklyn on September 1, 2018. Randy Weston remains one of the most renowned pianists and composers to this day, and his advocacy work truly made a mark on this world.

The Infamous Doorway

In 1976, 204 East 13th Street made a mark on pop cultural history for an entirely other reason.  If the doorway of the building looks familiar, it may because it’s where Harvey Keitel’s pimp character in the film ‘Taxi Driver” stood for a series of increasingly tense stand-offs with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, ultimately ending with his being shot in cold blood.

So Why NOT?

Village Preservation has presented all this information — and then some— to the Landmarks Preservation Commission about this building and approximately 200 surrounding buildings which we believe collectively warrant landmark designation (see also here and here). Thus far the Landmarks Preservation Commission has refused to act.

What You Can Do

204 East 13th Street experienced a fire in 2018 that severely damaged the top floor of the building. Fortunately, it has since been restored and is back in great condition.  But this is not always the case; often an event like this will lead to an owner seeking to demolish rather than restore a historic building.  Beyond that threat, development pressure in the neighborhood is resulting in an increasing number of demolitions to make way for tech-related office towers, hotels, and high-rise condos. The beginning of the construction on the 14th Street Tech Hub has increased that pressure, and the recent demolition of the St. Denis Hotel (80 E. 10th Street; 1855 –to be replaced by this) and the completion of the woefully out-of-scale tech office tower at 809 Broadway shows that the time is now for the city to act to protect this incredibly historically rich but endangered area.

Urge the city to protect this vital history and neighborhood NOW – click here to send letters to city officials demanding landmark protections for this and other buildings in the area.

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