North Shore-LIJ Preserving Architectural History

Source: Wall Street Journal

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July 25, 2011

Preserving Architectural History
By: Tom Stoelker

Last year's closing of St. Vincent's Medical Center in Greenwich Village sparked enormous controversy about health care in the city.

What was largely overshadowed was a debate about the fate of one of the most distinctive buildings in the complex: the O'Toole Building. Preservationists battled to save the 1963 building designed by Albert C. Ledner for the National Maritime Union during the city's post-Beat-early-Pop period.

Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal
 
Its connection with the Maritime Union severed, the O'Toole design that was meant to evoke steamship portholes is lost on many passersby.
But many—including some involved in the decision-making process—felt it would be no great loss to demolish the hulking five-story structure and replace it with a contemporary tower designed by Pei Cobb Freed. Its connection with the Maritime Union long severed, Mr. Ledner's cutout design that was meant to evoke steamship portholes is lost on many passers-by.

"Unwelcoming, ugly and unpleasant," was how Chelsea resident Jarda Pacanovsky described it last week.

"It looks like the building is encircled by giant false teeth," said Mitch Rein of Greenwich Village.

In the end the decision was made to save the O'Toole Building as part of the plan worked out in bankruptcy court on how to dispose of St. Vincent's valuable property. The best known feature of the plan will involve the Rudin family building housing where the closed hospital now stands.

As for the O'Toole Building, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health Care System is slated to take it over and spend $110 million to convert it into a modern health-care center, preserving much of the Ledner design.

Perkins Eastman will oversee the renovations and on Tuesday the plan will have a public hearing at Landmarks Preservation Commission.

This was the correct decision. While the O'Toole Building may not be immediately loved like other Manhattan landmarks, it's an important piece of the city's architectural history.

The muscular overhangs punched with half-portholes suggest Kerouac swagger tempered by Lichtenstein zing. In an interview last week, Mr. Ledner admitted "in a sense" to being influenced by Pop art, but said his education at Tulane University took precedence. There, his professors were either clean-lined European modernists or devotees to the organic style of Frank Lloyd Wright. On seeing Wright's Taliesin West, Mr. Ledner said he veered Wright.

"That was the first building I had ever seen of Wright's and it blew me away," Mr. Ledner said by phone from New Orleans.

Just four years after the master completed the Guggenheim, his disciple set out to create a whitewashed sculpture of his own. The architect divided the three-tiered facade horizontally. The slimmer top two overhangs thrust out toward the avenue, while the much wider lower section recedes slightly back. The entirety cantilevers over a base of two large semicircle glass block walls which converge at the main entrance on Seventh Avenue, like a large boat at berth atop a shimmering base.

Ledner designed two more buildings for the Maritime Union on Ninth Avenue and 17th Street, now the Maritime Hotel and the Dream Downtown Hotel. Both of these Chelsea buildings featured the porthole motif, though Downtown Dream was recently re-clad by Handel Architects. As a collection, the three represent the pinnacle of the maritime industry and the dawn of its decline. If Saarinen's TWA Terminal, completed in 1962, was a harbinger of the future, then the Maritime buildings represented an unwitting death knell for the industry on New York's piers.

To be sure, ideas that fly in one neighborhood might not in another, particularly 40 to 50 years on. Today's Chelsea is an entirely new port of call and many of residents in the Village are just too distracted for poetry.

But for an increasingly nostalgic New York, the buildings strike the right note.

When asked if he'd care to see the "unpleasant" building demolished, Mr. Pacanovsky didn't skip a beat.

"No. It's part of the neighborhood," he said.

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July 26, 2011
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