By Anne Olshansky
In 2015, Joe Ienco purchased the West Village landmark building at 35 Perry Street. As an experienced property owner and landlord, he had plans to renovate and restore its original beauty and character. Being a West Village resident for the past 30 years and a Village history aficionado, Joe dove enthusiastically into researching the building’s unique past in order to accurately represent the landmark structure.
The four-story brick townhouse at 35 Perry Street is one of three Italianate-style houses in a row constructed in 1852. Originally built as a one-family dwelling, it was converted into a rooming house in the 1890s. One of Number 35’s noted dwellers during this time was the Trappist monk, writer, and social activist Thomas Merton, who lived there in the 1930s while working on his graduate degree in English. In fact, at one point, to ascertain the dimensions of the outer balconies, Joe consulted Merton’s own writings. In an excerpt from The Seven Storey Mountain (which is on the National Review’s list of the ‘100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century’), Merton mentioned sitting on the balcony; Joe knew to revise the dimensions of the previous plans because they would not have accommodated such an activity. It was meticulous research but personally rewarding to contribute to preservation efforts.
After Merton, the building was reconfigured again in the 1960s to accommodate private apartments, and then became a co-operative in the 1980s. In the video “A Merton Pilgrimage,” produced by America Magazine, Contributing Editor Father James Martin stands in front of 35 Perry Street and observes that there is no plaque in front of it. When restoration is completed, Joe intends to have a plaque affixed to the building to commemorate Merton’s residency there.
Joe also plans to move into 35 Perry Street when the work is completed, however, he’s not sure when that will be. Initially, he planned according to the renovation timeline, but soon discovered that the building’s unstable condition warranted a great deal more work. Foundation-related problems in the backyard required complete gutting and correction; the staircases were unsafe and violated City codes; the building façade was detached from the side walls; and the beams were so severely rotted that only plaster walls supported the ceilings and upper floors. This last problem once caused a resident’s foot to punch through the wooden floor of her apartment and the ceiling of the apartment below.
Joe is adamant about using materials of superior quality and is unwilling to compromise his standards; this approach is more aligned with the interests of preservation. However, work permits are regularly delayed because all plans and changes need the approval of the NYC Department of Buildings and their inspectors who must visit the site to confirm that Joe’s improvements meet (or, in his case, surpass) the current requirements. Joe is installing steel beams and columns that will provide “fortification which will last a millennium,” and is determined to achieve a restoration that will rival the solid structures of ancient Rome.
Joe feels that this approach to restoring 35 Perry Street will not only add to the aesthetic beauty of the block (he has replaced the balcony and added four flower boxes), but will also “keep history alive.” His neighbors are in agreement and have supported his efforts. As Joe says, “It seems pointless to renovate a landmark building in a manner that wouldn’t last as long as [it’s] been around.” He hopes that other builder-renovators will follow suit.