By Brian J. Pape, AIA

The façade and window system use pale green terracotta framing of bronze-colored metal window units. Rendering Credit: SOM
The Walt Disney Company has presented quite a straightforward background building for its new New York headquarters at so-called 4 Hudson Square, aka 137 Varick Street. The design breaks up the massive potential of 1.2 million square feet into two towers—each with a 22-story height limit, over a shared 9-story base.

Unfortunately, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the project’s architects, did not chose to utilize the sturdy and elegant masonry structures currently on site (no landmarking protections here) to renovate and add additional floors, which several of its neighbors in this rapidly transforming neighborhood have successfully accomplished already. Instead, demolition continues this fall for the square block of buildings bordered by Hudson Street, Varick Street, Vandam Street, and Spring Street. Among the lost businesses is the City Winery, where live music events charmed visitors for many years.

Trinity Church Real Estate sold the air rights ownership (for 99 years) for $650 million to the Walt Disney Company. Rev. Dr. William Lupfer, Rector of Trinity Church, wrote on the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) website, “We’re especially pleased that the transaction will help further Trinity’s mission to serve the people of New York City and around the world through our programs and ministries.” Trinity is a parish church in the Episcopal Diocese of New York; it is one of the richest individual parishes in the world with total assets of about $2 billion as of 2011. In other words, thanks to Queen Anne, it is a cash cow allowing Trinity to do whatever it pleases.

The history of Hudson Square is not so simple. In 1634, Anneke Jans acquired a 62-acre parcel of land north of the wall border; she later married the pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church, Everardus Bogardus. When they died, their heirs sold it to English-appointed NYC governor Francis Lovelace. In 1696, after merging with other tracts, it became a 215-acre parcel and became crown land, known as “King’s Farm,” stretching up to Christopher Street in the Village. In 1697 English Governor Benjamin Fletcher established the Church of England as New York’s official religion and leased King’s Farm to Trinity Church, the brand-new parish with a church at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, just south of the farm’s southern border. Eight years later, Queen Anne granted the entire parcel to Trinity outright. Heirs, such as John Bogardus in 1847 and others, unsuccessfully contested the original sale as illegitimate.

Trinity had laid out a private fenced park and house lots in 1787, centered around Beach Street on the south, Hudson Street on the west, Laight Street on the north, and Varick Street, called “Hudson Square,” but changed it in 1827 to “St. John’s Park” for its St. John’s Chapel and to lend an air of exclusivity. Then, in 1867 Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt paid Trinity $1 million to acquire St. John’s Park for his railroad and a new depot which existed there until 1927. That’s when the Holland Tunnel was built, with its off-ramping, although some maps still label that block as “St. John’s Park.” That was also when a new St. John’s Terminal was built, on Spring and West Streets, for an elevated railroad.

So, where did the long-lost “Hudson Square” go? Today, the neighborhood north of that original location, once known as the “printing district,” is bound by Canal Street on the south, Varick Street (Seventh Avenue extension) on the east, West Street on the west, and Clarkson Street on the north—that’s one block north of the West Village’s Houston Street southern boundary! Clearly, the label has morphed to fit real estate desires, not geography.

Hudson Square is experiencing a boom thanks to zoning changes under the Bloomberg administration, including a bevy of residential buildings now rising to ever greater heights. And St. John’s Terminal will soon join two other buildings at 315 and 345 Hudson Streets as part of Manhattan’s newest “Google Hudson Square” campus, joining the “Google Chelsea” campus.

The Walt Disney Company’s current Upper West Side campus will be sold and leased back for about five years, in a deal with partner Silverstein Properties, Inc., landlord of the World Trade Center buildings among many others.

Skanska is in charge of the on-site construction activity, and the new plans call for retail space on the lower floors and offices beginning on the third floor, much as existed in the original buildings. WABC and WABC News, production space, and television studios will be located there.

Brian J. Pape is an architectural consultant in private practice. He serves as Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects New York Design for Aging Committee and as WestView’s Architectural Editor. Pape is also an officer of the health consultancy firm EnJOY Life!

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