By Brian J Pape, AIA
THEN: The Greek Revival townhouse at 18 West 11th Street was originally built in 1845, one of four houses on the block built by Henry Brevoort Jr. for his children. It was later (in the 1920s) the home of Charles Merrill (of Merrill Lynch), whose son, the poet James Merrill, was born there. On March 6th, 1970, shortly before noon, firemen were called to fight a blaze there caused by an explosion of dynamite-and-nails bombs being assembled by members of the Weather Underground, aka the Weathermen, a radical leftist group, in the subbasement furnace room in the townhouse owned by the parents of one of the Weathermen. The blast and ensuing blaze of ruptured gas lines completely destroyed the four-story structure in the heart of the newly designated Greenwich Village Historic District. Three of the Weathermen died immediately, and two were rescued alive from the rubble by a police officer but immediately escaped and remained at large for several years while on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The Weathermen had other connections to Greenwich Village, having taken their name from the Bob Dylan lyric “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” from his 1965 song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Actor Dustin Hoffman and his wife, Anne Byrne, lived next door at 16 West 11th Street at the time, and Hoffman was seen on the street watching the firemen battle the inferno. This 1940 tax photo of the streetfront of 18 West 11th Street shows the typical details of the 1845-era single-family townhouse. Credit: Municipal Archives.
NOW: Reconstructed in 1978, this modern interpretation was one of the first new structures in the historic district to be approved by the LPC. Hugh Hardy, the nationally famous modern architect, and Francis Mason bought the now-vacant land at 18 West 11th Street after the explosion and demolition. The challenge was ominous, not just due to the violent tragedy there but also because this would be one of the first new buildings here or in any historic district in New York City to come before the also fresh Landmarks Preservation Commission. Replicate the prior structure? Combine traditional architecture with an expression of the disruptive impact on the street? Or go fully contemporary to reflect the event and times? Mr. Hardy’s proposed design joined a historic-styled base and top floor with an angular bay window on the parlor and third floors, in brick that blended with the row of Greek Revival houses of which the former building had always been a part. Even the cornicework matched adjacent buildings. Hardy said, “It was this whole idea that a new building should express something new.” The proposed design went through many hearings and media coverage promoting all sides of the debate, and was narrowly approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The site remained a vacant lot until 1978, when a couple bought the property and Hardy’s design, with the LPC-approved exterior, and built their home. Later this home became known for the Paddington Bear placed in the bay window. New owners bought the home for $9.25 million in 2012, and added a new rear facade and roof alteration, approved in 2014. Traditional and modern in one facade—jarring to some, quirky Village oddity to others—but quality construction nevertheless, adding to the vibrant dynamism of the Village. Photo credit: Brian J Pape, AIA.