By Barry Benepe
In the September 2015 issue of WestView, I described “the building that wasn’t there,” 35XV, designed by FXFOWLE. Eight years ago, the same firm embarked on another outstanding building that seeks to deny its existence in the “soft touch,” the architect’s description of its presence: 155 West 11th Street, built by Rudin Management as part of the much larger residential development covering 2/3 of a block formerly occupied by St. Vincent’s Hospital. The closure of this much-needed facility caused outrage and sadness in the community. The City Council agreed to the hospital’s request to adopt a zoning change from a large-scale community facility use to a residential use.
Then began a long-term design process involving meetings with the community and the Landmarks Preservation Commission since the entire project was in an historic district. The Commission asked that three major contributing hospital buildings, 150 and 160 West 12th Street and 145 West 11th Street, be retained and converted to residential use. The architects added a fourth, 140 West 12th Street. In addition, they placed a row of five-story town houses on West 11th Street. These are both honestly contemporary in the handling of materials and details, and also honor the Village’s history with a harmonious limestone ground floor surmounted by a brick curtain wall dressed with a black metal cornice. Each house sports a triplet of three multi-paned windows over separate side entrances in what was described by Steen Eiler Rasmussen, author of Towns and Cities (Harvard University Press, 1951) as a waltz rhythm, o n e, two-three, o n e, two-three. In addition, Rudin hired landscape architects, M. Paul Friedberg, to convert the inaccessible raised triangle used for underground storage of hazardous materials into an accessible attractive ground-level public park which forms the focus of the entire development.
“It was a large and long process,” said Daniel J. Kaplan, Senior Partner at FXFOWLE and a nearby resident of the Village. “We spent 190,000 man hours in a labor of love on this project. During this time we consulted often with the community, emphasizing alternatives.”
The care shows, especially in the treatment of the 16-story building, 155 West 11th Street, facing the park. Mr. Kaplan added, “One of the great moments is experienced by the pedestrian while walking down Seventh Avenue where the avenue bends slightly east and where we created a lighter touch by setting the building back and opening up this space to the sky.” This was further strengthened by a device that I have never seen, turning the townhouse scale on West 11th Street north onto Seventh Avenue around the corner, thereby justifying the cachet address of 155 West 11th Street. The building is a welcome replacement to the heavy brutal boxiness of the former hospital or the ponderous overbearing ordinary presence of the buildings to the north. The setback, the sloped facade, and the broken roof-line all contribute to “the soft touch.” The resulting welcoming of the sky and the surrounding community reinforces this distinctive juncture of Seventh and Greenwich Avenues.
The most gratifying moment for Dan Kaplan was when a woman who had attended many of the community meetings where there was much opposition, chiefly to the loss of the hospital, came up to him on one of his frequent visits to the job site and said very quietly, “You know, you really did a good job. I like it.”