Yesterday, John Hill, arguably the city’s most prolific architecture critic, finished up one of his latest projects, entitled “31 in 31.” In addition to his usual flood of posts, Hill is chronicling one building every day in August, in preparation for a new guide book. The buildings are scattershot, ranging from the new Crocs super store in the West Village to One Bryant Park, but most of them are new and, in a way Hill always seems to manage, representative of precisely what has been going on in the city recently—not comprehensive, but authoritative. It’s a rundown worth running down, but one building in particular caught our eye: the rather unassuming Wilf Hall at NYU.
The project is not yet complete, but it caused quite a stir when it was proposed. Local preservationists objected to the project because it would destroy the Provincetown Playhouse, where Arthur Miller got his start, as well as the home of a number of other old, long-gone bohemian haunts. (Granted prerservationists object when NYU sneezes.) Even though the project is not located in a historic district, master faker Morris Adjmi was brought in, an architect known for his historically sensitive work, including the Scholastic Building in Soho and the High Line Building across from the Standard.
Here, Adjmi appears to have pulled off a very nice set of four modern rowhouses, rather prettier ones than the building it replaced. The retained and restored facade of the Provincetown Playhouse is particularly notable for how draws attention to the historic structure, highlighting it instead of hiding it. It is a refreshing building after so much massive development by the university, from Philip Johnson’s unusual Bobst Library to the downright awful Kimmel Center. It would seem this is the first project from NYU to make good on its promise to respect the scale and architecture of the Village—a promise that may not hold if its bombshell of an expansion plan is approved in the coming months and years.
So what does Andrew Berman, head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and leading NYU antagonist think of Adjmi’s building? He is not impressed, to say the least. In response to a query from the Observer, he sent over the following email:
The Provincetown Playhouse and Apartments was one of the most historically and culturally significant buildings in New York City, and should never have been demolished. It was the home not only of the world-famous theater, but of a collection of institutions which were called by historians “the cornerstone of bohemia” and “the locus of cultural activity and the gathering places of all the figures associated with the Greenwich Village Renaissance that began the era of Modernism in the U.S.” The entire building had been determined eligible for the State and National Register of Historic Places, and for a mere increase of 17,000 sq. ft.of space NYU chose to demolish rather than renovate or reuse the building, though only five years earlier they had demolished several other historic edifices including the Poe House and Judson Houses just across the street to make way for yet another mammoth Law School building. To add insult to injury, NYU’s promise to preserve in perpetuity about 5% of the original building was secretly compromised when, behind construction walls, they actually demolished part of the tiny theater space and kept that fact hidden, which was only revealed by vigilant neighbors and GVSHP.
Is the new building less overwhelming and oppressive than many other recent NYU projects? Of course, but it would be a shame if that were the sliding scale by which we judged the university. Wilf Hall will sadly always be a monument to the university’s broken promises and greed, and to the loss of yet another irreplaceable piece of New York’s proud history.
So much for community outreach.