The new development proposed for the parking lot next to the St. Luke’s School gymnasium and over the school itself has produced a decidedly negative reaction from its neighbors in the West Village. Most of this has been directed at the 15-story Toll Brothers buildingcontaining 46 apartments, entered from100 Barrow Street. However, the two-story rooftop addition to the school at 657 Greenwich Street also needs attention. The existing brick two-story school, built in 1945 and renovated in 1955, presents a blank windowless brick facade to Greenwich Street. In fact, a sign on the door directs visitors to the more inviting entrance at 487 Hudson Street where visitors and students alike enter through the invitingparish garden alongside the church.
This rooftop addition will allow the school to increase enrollment 50% from the current 200 to 300 students. At the same time, a Mission House proposed by the church will decrease the outdoor ground level play space by over 40%. The renderings prepared by architects, Andrew Bartle Associates, include retention and raising of the corner circular tower followed by a series of sloped yellow panels with an uneven roof edge. One question not addressed is how the top two floors will be constructed so as not to impact the school below, during construction. At the south end, there is no transition to the Toll building. Nor, is there any coordination of facade materials, floor levels or window openings. Beyer Blinder Belle, who were listed as “governing architects,” disclaimed any attempt to unify or control design of the two buildings, which brings us to the elephant in the room.
The size, height, and footprint of the TollBrothers building is driven by the economic feasibility of building and managing such a residence. This presents a challenge to any preservation minded architect. Thissolution fails at many levels other than being over-sized for the lot. The scale of the ground level is over-grand and bears no relation to the town houses along Barrow Street. It unnecessarily wipes out the Kwanzan Cherry allee leading from Barrow Street into the Rectory Garden and eliminates what could be an attractive arcaded entrance to the garden, the school, and the building itself, following a north-south axis and tying the entire complex together in a cloistered interior garden close. (It is instructive that the birds-eye view presented by the architects retains this allee and omits the Mission House.) The Toll Brothers might consider lengthening their foot print by incorporating the school auditorium under apartments above. The base of this building should carry out the roof line of the school, which itself needs to be made more distinctive. The southwest corner could replicate the tower at the northwest, thus unifying the blockfront. Even if the two architects wish to make their own individual aesthetic statements, there nerthelessneeds to be an over-all vision of how this campus will be experienced as a unified whole. In fact, the church should play a stronger role in protecting the historic fabric of the whole.
If the church cannot tuck sufficient living space under this extended cornice, it has two options. One is to run a two-story penthouse set back along the length of the enlarged footprint. The other is to present a slimmer elegant tower as a foil to the church itself, not a competitor. The existing proposal with its wedding cake three-level stack of contrasting materials is trying too hard to be the most important new kid on the block. It must be subservient to the whole, while remaining elegant and special.
While it is true that the southwest corner is darker than the northwest corner, it is still characterized by 6 to 8 story buildings, not 15. The federal archives building is an exception, a bold mammoth foil which cannot be used as an excuse for designing an “I’m as big as you” building. The northwest corner is bordered by very low buildings in the 1 to 3 story range. Sunlight and shadow are not the only concern. Equally, if not more important, is sky exposure for light and view of the blue sky and clouds. Even the two story addition to the school will depress the experience of the school courtyard. Most importantly, we must respect the scale of the church, its abutting row houses and the gardens as a religious center and “a place of sanctuary and respite,” as is stated on its sign of welcome. Finally, it is essential that all the gardens, including the school courtyard, are linked to provide a secure beautiful sun-lit sylvan refuge for its visitors for years to come.