By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
A cultural and community hub called the “Heart of Chinatown” was severely damaged by a fire on January 23, 2020, which reportedly started on the fifth floor. The building was home to five community and cultural organizations, all of which served essential needs of the community and would be sorely missed during these pandemic times.
In the aftermath of the fire, it would have been easy to call for demolition of the ruins, but given the historic and social importance of the building, the city wisely explored other options. The building has an address of 70 Mulberry Street; it was constructed in 1893 as Public School 23—designed by school superintendent and architect Charles B. J. Snyder, as a fortress-like Romanesque and Renaissance Revival styled brick school on a rusticated brownstone ashlar base. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 12, 2010, and is located within the Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District.
70 Mulberry Street was a five-story building on the corner of Mulberry and Bayard Streets, with an iconic stair tower at the corner which connects the southern and western elevation wings, and a brownstone entry for each elevation. Fortunately, the stair tower and the first two floors were salvaged. The first floor features wood flooring supported by a tile arch system that consists of hollow clay tiles arranged to form a flat arch between the steel support beams. The interior second floor of the building is supported by a series of cast iron columns, steel girders, and wood joists.
The five stories and full basement had 13,350 sq. ft. per floor, was a walk-up with no elevator, and had not complied with any accessibility requirements. Main tenants had consisted of the Chen Dance Studios, United East Athletic Association, Chinatown Manpower Association, the Department of Aging Senior Center, and the Museum of Chinese Americans (that will be welcomed back after rebuilding is completed).
Since the fire in January, 2020, the City of New York formed a 70 Mulberry Advisory Committee that included the building’s tenants, representatives appointed by the community board, and local elected officials in a community visioning process that featured a community survey and a series of public forums and events.
The community engagement also included a preservation assessment of the condition of the building’s façade to gather recommendations for its repair. According to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), the city first hired LiRo Architects & Planners PC and LiRo Engineers, Inc. to perform a visual assessment in June, 2020. Based on that assessment, Mayor de Blasio committed $80 million in July, 2020, to help rebuild the structure. The next step was to hire Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. (JBC), working with Ronnette Riley Architect to perform a more in-depth façade condition assessment, which was completed in March, 2021.
The city-owned building restoration will include: over 50,000 square feet of space for returning tenants, a new gymnasium to provide recreation space to the community, over 6,500 square feet of additional office and tenant spaces, building enhancements to ensure greater accessibility, and restoring the building’s façade appearance.
In October, Mayor de Blasio committed another $90 million for work to be completed in 2027, at the earliest, due to coordination among various agencies and various sign-offs, a public bidding process, budgetary allocations, and the need for political support.
Brian J. Pape is a LEED-AP “green” architect consulting in private practice. He serves on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee, and is also co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, a member of AIANY Historic buildings Committee, and a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.