By Sabina Mollot
The plan to add a shell-shaped glass dome onto the old Tammany Hall Building in Union Square has been turned down by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It was during a hearing that took place on Tuesday, November 25, when the Commission declined to approve the rooftop addition for the recently landmarked building. However, the LPC left the door open for the applicant, the architectural firm BKSK, to submit another proposal — and a revised design is already in the works.
Following the hearing, BKSK’s lead partner on the dome project, Todd Poisson, said the firm is hoping to meet with the Commission’s chair informally in January to discuss it and then present it again to the entire Commission.
On the new design, he would only say, “We’re really excited about it.” He noted how the chair had said the building as it stands now “begs for enhancement.”
“Architecturally speaking, it’s a modest building. It’s Neo-Georgian but it’s not the greatest example of Neo-Georgian the city has to offer.”
The dome was intended to create room for around 20,000 square feet of office space. Half of that would have been in the newly created space while the rest would be in the existing structure. Along with the dome, which would have replaced the current slate roof and raised the building’s height by two stories, other proposed changes to the property include removing the theater, restoring the storefront infill, replacing signage and adding windows and a new entrance.
Poisson, who’d given testimony alongside partner Harry Kendall, later acknowledged, in an interview with Town & Village, the “range of opinions” from the Commission on why the proposal hadn’t gotten the green light.
“There was concern about our removal of the existing hipped roof,” he conceded, “and that the proposed replacement was not quite in harmony yet with the rest of the building.” But, he added, “They were intrigued by the proposal’s symbolic content.”
The content he was referring to was inspired by Tammany, the Native American chief of the Lenape. Poisson said the symbol of Tammany’s clan was a turtle, which was from a creation myth of a great turtle rising from the sea and creating land and putting mud on its shell. The idea behind the shell concept at the property, said Poisson, was to “re-brand” Tammany as not just a name synonymous with a corrupt political machine but the chief who helped develop peaceful relations with the European settlers.
“Early colonists use Chief Tammany as a uniquely American symbol and many Tammany societies sprang up,” he said. “The height of irony is that the only Tammany society to make it into the 20th century is Tammany Hall, only to be known for its corruption. We’d like to remind people of the story no one remembers.”
However at the November hearing, not everyone was moved by the historical reference. The few speakers who came to give testimony in support of the proposed alteration were outnumbered by over a dozen in opposition of it, with most saying they thought the contemporary design was inappropriate.
One in the latter group was Jack Taylor of the Union Square Community Coalition. Taylor had been involved in the USCC’s fight for the landmark designation of the building, which was finally approved last year after 29 years of consideration. At the hearing, he argued that the current hipped attic roof of the building, which is opposite Union Square Park’s East Side at East 17th Street, “is so visible that it defines the contours of the building.”
Removing it, he said, “would be to demolish a protected architectural element of the designated structure.” The building, he continued, had been designed to look like the Georgian-inspired architecture of the old Federal Hall on Wall Street. Federal Hall, where George Washington took his oath of office, also had a hipped attic roof.
Others who either gave testimony in person or via written statement against the dome proposal were Council Member Rosie Mendez, the Historic Districts Council, Community Board 5, Gramercy Neighborhood Associates and the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
In support of the plan however was Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, who gave her testimony in person. She later explained that she did so because the building was very much in need of attention, and the BKSK plan would have added something “bold” to the roof while restoring the rest of the property.
In a written statement, she said, “We applaud BKSK Architects’ bold design, which complements the history of Union Square as a vital and active, contemporary civic space. The removal of the overabundant existing signage, as well as the slate, mansard roof will greatly improve the overall look of this highly-visible property. The streamlined signage plan is simple and elegant, and the addition of a glass-domed roof provides a contemporary element while honoring the building’s Colonial Revival-style.”
Falk added that the USP looks forward to seeing how the design evolves.
Taylor, meanwhile, said he couldn’t help but point out that while the USP supported the new roof, it didn’t lend its support to the landmarking effort.
“For the first time in my memory, which goes back to the days of when the BID and the LDC (now the Union Square Partnership) were first formed in the 1980s, it’s a reaction to a landmark issue, a preservation issue,” he said. “Which,” he added, “the Partnership, as now it’s called, has never spoken anything about. And now there’s a reaction to an issue involving preservation and landmarking and of course it’s on the wrong side.”
In response, a spokesperson for the USP said the Partnership had been in support of the designation. However, since the effort wasn’t facing opposition once the building owner decided to support a designation, the organization didn’t feel it was necessary to send anyone to testify.
Other people who testified in support of the dome included Barry Benepe, co-founder of the Union Square Greenmarket, and Margaret Cotter, president of Liberty Theaters and the building’s owner.
Along with needing the LPC’s blessing to move forward with a plan to create office space, Cotter would also require a special use variance to build the dome. Poisson said this is because the eastern most portion of the property falls into a different zone than the rest of the building, and the eastern zone is residential.