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Thread: A Partly Historic Lot, Flanked by Glimpses of History

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    Default A Partly Historic Lot, Flanked by Glimpses of History

    January 25, 2004


    A Partly Historic Lot, Flanked by Glimpses of History


    The view looking south toward 28th Street over the parking lot between 29th and 28th and Fifth Avenue and Broadway. The south side of the lot is part of the Midtown North Historic District, while the 29th Street side is not.

    Buildings on 29th Street between Fifth and Broadway.

    THE little piazza of parking is half in, half out. That is, the 28th Street side of the assemblage of six separate parcels at 7-11 West 28th and 6-10 West 29th — now a parking lot, running through the block between Fifth Avenue and Broadway — is within the Midtown North Historic District, and the 29th Street side is outside.

    Thus it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to proceed with plans filed two decades ago for a tall building on the site, and a visit to this little midblock surprise can re-arrange a New Yorker's view of the relationship between street and architecture.

    New York's ceaseless gridiron straitjacket puts the city at a disadvantage compared to the picturesque alleys of Barcelona or the sudden little piazzas that surprise the visitor to Venice. Our arrow-straight streets disappear into the distance in a series of narrow slots, from which it is hard to see individual buildings and usually impossible to take in an entire streetscape.

    New Yorkers become oblivious to this effect, but the 16,000-square-foot parking lot between 28th and 29th Streets permits vistas of two unusual midblock rows of buildings, on the south side of 28th and the north side of 29th.

    Looking to the south, the first building to the left is 4 West 28th Street, built as a brownstone row house in 1861 but given a trim new Queen Anne-style facade in 1885, designed by Henry Kilburn.

    The deliciously ancient, peeling brownstone of the next building over, 6 West 28th, betrays its basic vintage of 1855, and the wide, sagging show window on the second floor is Gothic or Moorish or Greek or maybe all three, apparently a 1913 alteration by the architect William Lauritzen.

    The crisp brickwork of the house at 8 West 28th Street is also a completely new front on top of an 1850's brownstone, this one designed by Charles Romeyn for the printer Robert Hoe.

    The Italianate facade of 10 West 28th Street is fairly standard, but that of 12 West 28th, although dingy and ignored, is an ambitious neo-Classical work, designed by S. Edson Gage as a branch of the Corn Exchange Bank. The stone of its double-height colonnade and rich swags of fruit and flowers at the second-floor level is stained and aged with the years.

    On the north side of 29th Street, the trim little cast iron commercial facade at 9 West 29th Street is a 1900 alteration of an earlier brownstone by John B. Snook. The buildings at 11, 13 and 15 West 29th are also altered row houses: inside 11 West 29th Street rises the old brownstone's intact stairhall. A trip upward shows an ornate perforated plaster cornice of floral design and, at the top floor, a skylight framed by a recessed chamber decorated with a robust riot of egg-and-dart, bead-and-reel, floral and other decoration, all so crisp it could have been executed yesterday.

    The earliest inhabitants of these two rows were prosperous householders. The 1870 census shows the tobacco merchant David McAlpin at 9 West 29th with his three children and eight servants; in 1869, The New York Times reported that a sneak thief escaped with a brooch of 69 diamonds because the McAlpins' basement door had been "carelessly left ajar."

    At 13 West 29th lived George Perugini, listed in the census as a "singing actor." This was almost certainly the tenor John Chatterton, famous as a boy soprano, who took Perugini as a stage name and appeared at the Metropolitan Opera House.

    In 1894. he married the actress Lillian Russell; they separated within a year, and Chatterton left the stage to work as a Wall Street stockbroker. But his 1914 obituary in The Times said "the stage still had a lure for him that he could not resist" and he returned to performing in 1912. He retired the next year because of deafness.

    Later in the century, the tenancy began to change: in the 1880's and 1890's the house at 6 West 28th Street — the one with the flaking brownstone and the wonderful bay window — was raided by the police as a gambling house. That did not stop the Thirteen Club from having its regular dinners there — in 1887 they invited as guests 13 undertakers, and also three judges who had sentenced convicts to the gallows. In the same year, the Architectural League met there to hear Henry Ogden Avery give a lecture on a trip through the Loire Valley.

    Now, at the turn of the 21st century, the buildings are a crumbling tapestry of a half century of New York architecture, giving the architectural pilgrim who chances by a sudden frisson, like an antiques dealer who spots a Georgian highboy in the dusty reaches of a farm cellar.

    At 8 West 28th Street, cardboard and papers block the second floor windows; the third-floor window bears the faded sign "Girdle Factory for Sale." The parlor-floor front of 11 West 29th Street is covered in peculiar modern wood sheathing with small windows, as if it was a duck blind, or headquarters for police surveillance. The facade of 10 West 28th is tired and worn, but the fire escapes are festooned with Christmas lights, and the dirty windows of the upper floors have gold and red curtains.

    AT 4 West 28th, in the 1890's the residence of Modesto Falizano, the Ecuadorian consul, Carmen Kolodzey, a textile artist and painter, says that the building is "in dire disrepair — the owner does absolutely nothing." The 28th Street buildings were included in the North Midtown Historic District in 2001, but the restorer's brush has so far missed them by a wide mark — there is little evidence that anyone sees anything more than real estate in the row. That is hardly a bad thing, for they will probably never look as good as they do now, like damaged pieces of Scythian gold freshly pulled from some dusty tomb.

    The north side of 29th Street was drawn out of the historic district, but there is some evidence of architectural care at 9 West 29th Street, the one with the cast iron facade of 1900. There the lobby was renovated in the 1990's with unusual individuality, the walls faced with small tiles set in geometric patterns something like the varicolored borders of the station signs in the original subway. It bears the hand of an interested owner, willing to do something much more than the usual design by autopilot.

    Upstairs, Dr. Robert Passikoff, founder of Brand Keys, a research firm, says his building has been owned for years by Harvey Drucker. Dr. Passikoff says that Mr. Drucker "really cares about the building" and let Dr. Passikoff have his present space instead of some prior applicants, because they told Mr. Drucker they were going to rip out the existing architecture. Dr. Passikoff looks out over the parking lot, to the row of houses on 28th Street, and says, "I've often thought how lucky I am that I don't stare directly into another building; everyone who comes in comments on it."

    The future of the open space? In Midtown New York "parking lot" is usually shorthand for "development site." And in 1986, the lot's owner, 28th-29th Realty Associates, filed plans for a 31-story apartment house on the site.

    That company has offices at 158 West 29th Street — the same address as the owner of 9 West 29th, Harvey Drucker. Other records indicate that the owner is, indeed, Harvey Drucker — who protested the landmark designation of his land in 2001. Mr. Drucker did not respond to requests for an interview, but any tower plan would be made much more difficult because of the landmark designation of half the site. Thus the tenants of the landlord who "really cares about his building" may keep their view for the indefinite future.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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