At Landmarks Hearing, Outcry Against Hotel Adjacent Merchant’s House Museum

LPC Merchant's House MeetingSuzanne Rozdeba

Preservationists, politicians, and neighborhood residents asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission yesterday to nix, or at least limit the height of, a proposed hotel that they fear will damage the historic Merchant’s House Museum.

Speaking to about 70 people at a public hearing at One Centre Street, City Council member Rosie Mendez, who said she had allotted close to a million dollars for museum renovations, asked that the nine-story, 32-room hotel be scaled back to three and a half stories, to match the height of the neighboring museum. The commission must approve the application because the proposed site is within the NoHo Historic District Extension.

“In this city, when we have great buildings, and it tells something about our history, and our communities, we landmark them,” she said. “And the Merchant’s House Museum is one of those buildings.” The councilwoman asked for a protection plan that would require the developer to pay for any damage as well as for the expense of moving artifacts during construction. Supporters of the national landmark, built in 1832, believe that any construction could cause damage to its interior Greek Revival architecture and its Federal-style brick exterior.

Edward Carroll, the project’s controversial designer, argued that the Bowery was already home to buildings that were taller than the hotel proposed for East Fourth Street, and said it would have a “tri-part design” that would “put it in context with the loft buildings that are typical to the late 1800s and early 1900s in this particular neighborhood.” He also pointed to Great Jones Street, one block south. “There’s a lot of similarities to be seen, with the heights of 100 feet, 80 feet, interposed between each other on one block.” He said the façade would be made of a dark-grey steel and surrounded by a limestone frame.

Doris Diether, CB2Suzanne Rozdeba Doris Diether

Philip Murray, a structural engineer on the project, said the museum would be most vulnerable during foundation work, “when protection of the Merchant’s House and the co-op to the west would be most important.”

The proposed hotel’s foundation would be built sequentially, in sections. “Hopefully, we never have much of the house exposed,” said Mr. Murray. Once the foundation and first floor were in place, he said, there would be a “safe situation” moving forward.

But many of those in attendance were not convinced that the design team could protect the museum from damage. Pi Gardiner, the museum’s executive director, said, “I know how fragile the house is at 180 years old. It is at great risk, and would suffer damage. The house is a miracle of survival: unique, intact, unrivaled and irreplaceable.” She added that of the 114 buildings in the city landmarked for their interiors, only the Merchant’s House portrays the life of a single family in 19th-century New York. “On behalf of the board of directors, staff, volunteers, and many friends of the Merchant’s House I respectfully ask the commission to deny this application,” she said.

The museum is circulating a petition asking that the Landmarks Preservation Commission deny the hotel proposal. So far, 2,259 people have signed.

Doris Diether, co-chair of Community Board 2’s Landmarks and Public Aesthetics committee, was visibly emotional while speaking about the museum. “There would be a public outcry if a private developer… pardon me,” she said, her voice cracking. “We recommend the proposed new building be in scale with the adjacent Merchant’s House and not the industrial buildings on Lafayette Street, and recommend that the engineering and architectural plans be submitted to the directors of the Merchant’s House for review and approval, and that the developer be held financially responsible for preserving and storing artifacts, and compensate the museum for any loss of income.”

Noting the anniversary of September 11, Anthony Onorato, a retired schoolteacher from Brooklyn, said, “On this day, when we remember such destruction, so much of New York has been destroyed. Are we going to go ahead and add to this destruction? The Merchant’s House is a necessary place for scholars, teachers, artists and tourists to be able to see what New York is like. If we lose this – even the smallest detail – we lose a part of ourselves.”

In other business yesterday, the Preservation Commission voted to landmark the former site of the Ridley & Sons Department Store, at 319-321 Grand Street. The Lo-Down has more about that.