The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted yesterday to designate a collection of over 330 buildings — within the bounds of the Bowery, Avenue A, East 2nd and East 7th street — as the first large-scale historic district in neighborhood history.
In a 6 to 1 vote, the commission gave landmark protection to many historic tenement houses, religious structures and theaters within the designated area.
“We’re thrilled that the district was designated. This is an enormously important step forward in terms of preserving the East Village, which has been under attack from a lot of very inappropriate out-of-scale development — high rise dorms, big new hotels and luxury condos,” Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, tells the Voice. “So, this will definitely make a big difference in terms of helping preserve what makes the East Village so distinctive.”
Some of the notable sites within the district include the Congregation Mezritch Synagogue on East 6th street built in 1847, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on East 2nd Street built in 1891, the Anthology Film Archives on Second Avenue and the Pyramid Club on Avenue A, which is housed in a tenement built in 1867.
Amid celebration of the newly designated district, many in attendance were caught off guard by the removal of six buildings originally slated for the district. LPC Chairman Robert B. Tierney approved recommendations presented by the commission’s research director, Mary Beth Betts, to eliminate the buildings,which are located by First Avenue near East 6th and East 7th Street.
“I would feel very comfortable adding those other buildings — putting them back in there — for the simple reason that I’m always concerned that when we create historic districts, that we create fragments – pieces that are not connected. The sense of place would be much stronger,” Pablo Vengoechea, commission vice-chairman, said during the vote.
The commission’s research team concluded that four of those buildings had little architectural, cultural and historic significance within the proposed district. The other two buildings were removed because the owner fought hard to keep them out of the historic district.
The lone dissenting vote on the commission came from Margery Perlmutter. Perlmutter, an the architect for many tenement renovation projects and a tenement resident herself, doesn’t see the value of including so many tenements in the district.
“They don’t individually rise to the level of [the district],” Perlmutter said. “And so I’d say that yes, there are definitely things within the contours of this district that are worth observing and protecting — some of the religious structures, some of the theater structures, a little bit of the tenement buildings, the ones that have the exuberance, just enough to give you a taste.”
She pointed out the original detail at some the tenements has been lost. And, that by design, many of them have poor air-quality and lighting infrastructure.
“I maintain that the buildings are essentially intact and read very well together. What’s so important about this district is the streets. You can landmark individual buildings in the area but you’ll never understand the history of the area,” Richard Moses, president of the Lower Eastside Preservation Initiative, tells the Voice. “That whole interrelationship is really central to anybody’s ability to understand how the neighborhood has functioned and continues to function.”
Berman hopes to score more large-scale landmark designation within the East Village and in West and South Greenwich Village as well. He says it’s the only way to ensure that historic areas will be protected from an onslaught of irresponsible development projects.
“Whether it’s NYU, or hotel developers, or builders of luxury condos, this is important to make sure the neighborhood isn’t completely destroyed by folks who just want to make a quick buck, and who don’t really care about maintaining the character of one of New York’s most historic and beloved neighborhoods,” Berman says.
He says that it’s the historic architecture that helps give the East Village its unique character.
“If you don’t do stuff like this you’re going to wake up one day, and the East Village is going to look like every place else,” Berman says. “With landmark protections you help keep that unique character and you help keep a connection to the history of the neighborhood.”