Review and Comment
The Brooklyn Historical Society is mounting a new exhibit that will run from this Friday to December 31. It’s called CONTEXT\CONTRAST: New Architecture in Historic Districts 1967 to Present. If the photo on the announcement the society sent out is any indication, there is cause for concern. The photo shows possibly the worst single example of recent construction within the Brooklyn Heights Historic District: the entirely spurious “carriage house” standing free as a sore thumb on Love Lane, facing College Place. The carriage “door” on the little building was never a door, and the little mushroom bollards that were set in front to guard against turning vehicles are risible.
If – as one hopes not – the exhibit is uncritically presenting this structure as a proper example of design in “context,” then we are veritably embracing Disneyfication. One can imagine a “carriage house” created with a sense of irony and whimsy that would refer to its historical antecedents while clearly indicating its later gestation, but this building is not it. It is about as sober and dull as could be. While it makes a wan gesture toward the earlier carriage houses (one of them also a later imitation) a short distance down College Place, the former parking garage undergoing conversion at the Love Lane-College Place corner offered a better possibility for context that was missed – its generous windows putting to shame the cramped little openings of the “carriage house.”
A forum on the context\contrast question is scheduled at the Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont Street, on Wednesday, November 2, at 7 p.m. Among the panelists will be Hugh Hardy, an architect who has made a name for himself for innovative intermixing of traditional and modern; Otis Pratt Pearsall, the “father” of the Heights Historic District; and Thomas F. Schutte, the president of Pratt Institute, where recent construction has contrasted boldly with the older campus. Since it is hard to imagine the panel coming down heavily on the side of rank imitation as against contrast, it may well be that the “carriage house” photo on the announcement was in fact meant as a provocation. In the early days of the Heights Historic District, Pearsall himself was instrumental in having Jehovah’s Witnesses employ the architect Ulrich Franzen for the clearly modern and impressive library and dormitory at Columbia Heights and Pineapple Street.
There is a back story to the Love Lane building, which is that local preservationists, fearing the taste of the prospective developer, pressed for the imitation carriage house as a “safe” alternative. (Could the developer, unfettered, have done any worse?)
A different preservation question concerns perhaps the purest and finest Modernist structure in the city – the former Manufacturers Hanover Bank branch at Fifth Avenue and West 43rd Street in Manhattan. Built in 1954 when banks were entering their heyday, it was designed by Charles Evans Hughes III and Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) as a glass box that allowed pedestrians passing by to see both the escalators to the second floor and the circular door to the steel bank vault. It surpassed in elegance the precedent-setting Lever House that Bunshaft had designed.
Now that banks are being battered and Manufacturers Hanover is long gone, Vornado Realty Trust is moving to clear space for two stores there, putting in a new door, realigning the escalators and placing them farther back, and diminishing the vault wall. The alteration is also designed by SOM, but it is now far from Bunshaft’s SOM, and champions of Modernism have formed a coalition in what looks very much like an uphill battle to prevent what they see as the desecration of a masterpiece.
Last Thursday ‘s Times quoted Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman Robert Tierney as saying, “Ultimately, the building was originally designed for a specific use – banking – which was no longer practical.” That may be true as far as it goes, but under Tierney’s lengthening watch over the commission a number of unfortunate decisions have been made, especially involving relatively recent architecture, and a lack of true feeling for architectural quality and historic value has too often been evident.
The former bank may inexorably face the need for what is called “adaptive reuse,” but that should not be allowed to upset characteristics that were key to the building’s special appeal. Let Vornado work around the escalators and the vault. This is too important a building to allow for a violation or cheapening of its overall effect.
— Henrik Krogius, Editor
Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News