By Barry Benepe
The pair of former stable/garage buildings formerly housing Pro Piano at 85-89 Jane Street are slated to be demolished and replaced with a one family house belonging to Jon Stryker, an architect specializing in the rehabilitation of historic buildings. He is also a philanthropist with a net worth estimated at $2.1 billion, having given over a half billion dollars to the Arcus Foundation primarily supporting great ape conservation efforts and LGBT causes, both bound by the common themes of compassion and justice. Mr. Stryker also sits on the board of The Friends of the High Line. His home has been designed by the architectural firm of Steven Harris on Warren Street in Manhattan. The firm’s work, which stretches from California to Croatia, displays a clean, spare elegance with a use of stone, steel, glass and concrete, which sculpts daylight and landscaped views into a deeply satisfying repose.
If approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission when it meets on June 7, it will be one of the largest private mansions built in Manhattan since the late 19th century, when stately mansions were built along Fifth Avenue facing Central Park. At 16,000 square feet, it will dwarf all other homes on Jane Street. That is not such a bad thing. It will stretch our range of architectural expression, if done well.
The Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation and Community Board Two have both opposed the proposal as it now stands, chiefly because of the twin joined towers rising up over 40 feet like large chimneys from the center of the roof. These are chiefly to house a collection of books. The opponents spoke of “disrespect of the rhythm and proportion of Jane Street’s residential and commercial, rather than industrial character.”
In an historic district, the greatest compliment that a new building effort can make to the existing historic character is to produce outstanding architecture in a truly contemporary language that represents our time and will be the landmark of the future. Tammany Hall, the landmarked Federal imitation on Union Square, sentimentally hearkens to a bygone era. Whereas the Chrysler Building, built at the same time, is a true landmark that represents its own era in a forthright statement. The former garage at 85-89 Jane Street and the existing garage at 11 Jane Street have facades of little interest, and the buildings, while useful to house cars, are useless to house people. They should be replaced with buildings of outstanding contemporary quality that truly reflect their function, and also celebrate their time.
Both buildings will have to do so in a way that honors their surroundings and the district’s unique past. The library stacks appear arbitrary and accidental, not purposeful, but their justification must await the presentation at the public hearing on June 7. They remind me of the justification given by Mother Carolyn Stacey for the high rise apartments looming over the west side of the garden of Saint Luke in the Fields, which she called a “campanile” for the church. The true bell tower was over the church itself and should have been the dominant architectural feature of the block.
Yes, cornice and floor alignment, wall materials, window size, spacing, and proportions all have to be given consideration, but not be slavishly imitated as was done on Bethune Street opposite Westbeth. Contrast can be an effective foil. Number 11 Jane Street should carry out the roof lines of the buildings next to it for the group to act as a foil to the bulk of the high-rise buildings facing Jackson Square, where the gentle undulation of the glass mid-rise building beautifully complements the whole. Another successful modern example terminates the north end of West Fourth Street at West 13th Street.
The two new buildings on Jane Street offer unique opportunities to shape our community. Our buildings should be of our time, while respectful of the historic districts.