By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
THEN: What, South 5th Avenue? Yes, in 1886, when manufacturing loft buildings were still being built of brick, the Baker, Smith & Co., producers of steam heating & ventilation car warmers, etc., proudly advertised their wares to passers-by on the street and on the elevated railroad cars. Mr. William C. Baker had improved on Mr. Stephen J. Gold’s 1854 low-pressure steam apparatus invention, by adding ventilation to the system.
This handsome masonry structure features simplified stone lintels and sills of the Anglo-Italianate style, considered ‘modern’ at the time, and a cornice of corbeled brick, not as elaborate as the deeper Italianate cornices prevalent at the time. The ground floor bays with taller ceiling height allowed delivery doors and showroom offices to dominate the street. The smaller series of chimneys indicate the modern steam heat radiation system used to heat the building.
Note that this photographic view is from the elevated tracks (also no longer existing) on Houston Street and show trolley car tracks on Fifth Avenue. Furthermore, there is photographic evidence of the older Greek Revival rowhouse structures to the north (left in the photo) and Second Empire French rowhouses to the east (right in the photo), as well as other larger loft buildings in the background.
The cast-iron-fronted loft buildings of the future SOHO neighborhood would develop just south of this block. Houston Street of this era was standard street width, not the double divided thoroughfare of today.
Text & Photo credit: King’s Handbook of New York City, Second Edition, 1893.
NOW: This matching view, although from the sidewalk of West Broadway (renamed from South 5th Avenue) instead of the elevated tracks, shows the existing NYU residential complex. In 1953 the Mayor’s Commission on Slum Clearance designated three superblocks in the Greenwich Village area for redevelopment, with the lower (southern) two superblocks sold to the Washington Square Village Corporation. However, poor sales of apartments in the central superblock’s buildings led the Corporation to sell the southernmost superblock to NYU in 1960. This became part of a NYU program, started in the 1950s to transform itself from a commuter college to a residential college centered in Greenwich Village.
In 1960 NYU hired I. M. Pei & Associates, later known as Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, to design the complex. The finalized plan was completed in October 1966. The complex consists of three nearly identical thirty-story cast-in-place concrete towers arranged in a pinwheel plan around a 100-foot-square courtyard. Together the three brutalist towers have 535 apartments, broken up into one-, two- and three-bedroom units. The concrete around the entrances was bush-hammered to partially expose the aggregate in the concrete.
As part of the sale, NYU was required to develop 175 units of low-income housing on the site, so the tower at 505 LaGuardia Place would become a co-op under the Mitchell-Lama program, while 100 and 110 Bleecker Street would become apartments for NYU faculty and graduate students.
In 2008 the city Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the three towers and the central courtyard as a Historic Landmark, effectively ending NYU’s plan of adding a 40-story tower as part of its NYU 2031 plan, calling for a total of 1.9 million square feet of new residential, academic, office and other space. In January 2014, New York State Supreme Court Justice Donna Mills blocked much of the plan.
In the courtyard at the center of the complex is a 36-foot-high sculpture known as the Bust of Sylvette, created by the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjär in 1968, done in collaboration with Pablo Picasso, who had created a two-foot-high version of the sculpture in folded metal in 1954. Picasso was living in south France when he met the 20-year-old Sylvette David, who would become the subject for over 40 pieces of artwork he produced during 1954. The Nesjär sculpture is noted for its use of the betograve technique of sandblasting concrete to create different textures and received a New York State Award in 1969. The sandblasted concrete compliments the bush-hammered concrete on the high-rises.
Photo: Brian J Pape, AIA. Text sourced from Wikipedia.
Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee (but speaking solely in a personal, and not an official capacity), Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings and Housing Committees, is LEED-AP “Green” certified, and is a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.