The stout, 1940s brick building at 133-139 MacDougal Street in the West Village has had a long and checkered past that has only gotten more complicated in recent months. Once the fabled home of the Provincetown Playhouse, where Eugene O’Neill launched his playwrighting career, the New York University-owned building is currently a grad student dorm. Against the steady drumbeat of preservationists’ opposition, the university has tried at various times over the past few years to tear down the historic, but not landmarked, building. And in May, the university announced that while it would save the shell of the Playhouse, it was going to replace the rest of the building with a research center for the law school designed by Morris Adjmi.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) is still opposed to the plan, stating that although the structure—originally four row houses dating to the 1830s—has been altered beyond recognition (even the Playhouse entrance was moved at some point from the north to the south facade), it still beats at the heart of what was once1920s bohemian New York, having housed such illustrious tenants as the Liberal Club, the Washington Square Bookstore, the Heterodoxy Club, and Polly's Restaurant.
“History doesn’t end at these four walls of this theater. This is the site where modern America was born,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the GVSHP, at a rally outside the theater on May 27. Berman said he also worries about the "shell" the school has promised to preserve, as a similar deal was struck to save pieces Edgar Allen Poe's former home on Third Street, around which yet another law school building was to be constructed. Part of its facade was to be incorporated into the new building, but it was damaged and had to be reconstructed from scratch.
Apart from its somewhat compromised status as a landmark, the building has also become a lighting rod for another simmering town and gown debate. In January, a hallmark agreement brokered by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer between the university, the local community board, residents, business owners, and preservationists pledged that future university expansion—estimated at some 3.6 million new square feet—would keep out of the so-called Washington Sqaure “core.”
NYU argues that by replacing student housing with research facilities, they are in accordance with this goal, placing their most important facilities in the core and moving housing to a more remote location. To sweeten the deal, NYU is also leaving developable FAR on the table, something school officials say has never been done before. The whole plan leaves locals nervous about the pressures such deals put on the fragile ecology of the village.
“You’re already taking another swing at the heart of Greenwich Village,” said long-time Village resident Libby Goldberg at board meeting following the rally. “You need to find ways to reuse this building. This is not a good place to start pulling things down.” MC