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Testimony By New York State Senator Thomas K. Duane Before The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission's Public Hearing On The Proposed Designation Of The West Chelsea Historic District

 

My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York State's 29th Senate District, in which all of the proposed West Chelsea Historic District is located. Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony before the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) today.

First, I would like to thank LPC for following up so expeditiously on the City Administration's commitment, during negotiations over the West Chelsea rezoning, to conduct a study into whether the area's architectural and historical contributions merited a new historic district. I am also grateful to LPC's research team for its careful and extensive study, and for taking recommendations made by Manhattan Community Board Four ("CB4") into account. As we are all too aware, development pressure threatens to eliminate many historic resources on the West Side, including the many magnificent buildings in this portion of Western Chelsea. Preservation through an historic district is crucial to maintaining the memory of West Chelsea's vital role in the development of our City and the preservation of the handsome and architecturally significant buildings which exemplify an important period of our city's economic legacy.

Situated adjacent to the Hudson River and two significant rail lines, West Chelsea played a vital role in the industrial history of New York City. The district's structures, in fact, reflect the various and changing transportation methods utilized during the City's industrial period. The piers that now make up the Hudson River Park were once used to transfer goods from the river to the industrial sectors of the City, one of the most important of which was West Chelsea. The large arched entrances visible on the buildings on the Western edge of the district recall a period when goods ferried from New Jersey were unloaded on the float transfer bridges, of which only one survived, and delivered directly to the warehouses across Twelfth Avenue. Buildings like the New York Terminal Warehouse Company’s Central Stores show tunnels leading into their heart, so that cargo-laden cars on the New York Central railroad line, which once proceeded down Eleventh Avenue, could directly enter their storage and manufacturing facilities. Other buildings show similar arched openings that allowed access for train cars on the "Death Avenue" line, another set of tracks located on Tenth Avenue. Finally, buildings in the area feature direct access points to the High Line, which signified a shift from ground-level tracks to an elevated rail system. Without the preservation of these buildings, and their aforementioned features, our connection to these extinct means of industrial transportation which were so important to the evolution of West Chelsea and the entire City, will be lost forever.

Beyond the utilitarian elements that remind us of defunct rail lines and working piers, West Chelsea's architecture is distinct for its starkly industrial accents, which contrast sharply with the style of the residential neighborhoods to the south and the east. This waterfront district was a center of New York City's industrial activity during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and prestigious industrial firms built mammoth warehouses and manufacturing plants there as symbols of their influence. However, there is real architectural strength and quality to the buildings, as their owners wished to display their companies' pedigree and wealth. For instance, working warehouses like the Otis Elevator Building, the Williams Warehouse, and the Zinn Building have fine details like delicate cornice work in addition to the predictable solid, heavy materials.

In fact, the district's buildings represent not only a changing industrial economy, but also evolving materials technology. There is a healthy mixture of early standard materials like brick and terra cotta, which lent themselves to the considerable ornamentation once popular among prestigious firms, and reinforced concrete, a then-new technology that was exceptional for its strength and lent itself to the construction of stark but dignified structures. Simple reinforced concrete exposures, seen in the Wolff Building and other buildings in the district, are a celebration of the material's solidity, mass and strength. This diversity and clear evolution of materials is part of the district's unique character and adds to its historical significance.

This is the second time in recent memory that I have extolled the virtues of the proposed West Chelsea Historic District to LPC. The first came in October of last year, when I sent a letter urging this designation and presented buildings I considered to be significant, but that lay outside of the draft boundaries LPC had drawn. I am grateful that LPC has seen fit to include several of my suggestions in today's proposal. The first of these buildings is 280 Eleventh Avenue, between West 27th and West 28th Streets, which has fine cornice work and functional and architectural relation to the New York Terminal Warehouse Company's Central Stores across the street, which is one of the most important buildings within the proposed district. As I noted earlier, that building's massive archway once welcomed tracks from the New York Central railroad that then curved along an exceptional tunnel into the very heart of the cold storage warehouse. I also appreciate LPC’s inclusion of the Berlin and Jones Envelope Company Building at 549 West 28th Street. A valuable and noteworthy building constructed in 1900 as a warehouse, its ornamental tieplates and wonderfully preserved brick details add significantly to the district.

While West Chelsea and the West Side have changed significantly since the industrial period that today's proposal documents, West Chelsea is still a thriving and unique area. The district has become an enclave of art galleries, dance studios, and other creative commercial industries. Current users' focus on design and art complement the area’s industrial past, making it one of the more popular and important parts of the city. The district's success, however, is also threatening both its present character and its continued existence as an homage to the City’s industrial history. Smaller buildings within the proposed boundaries, like the aforementioned Berlin and Jones Envelope Company Building, have little chance of retention without the protection this designation would afford. Likewise, buildings of great significance just outside of the present boundaries, like the fine E.R. Merrill Spring Company Building (at 525-31 West 27th Street), or for instance 526 West 25th Street, are in immediate danger of demolition due to development pressure, and should be considered for either inclusion in today’s proposal or in the future for individual designation. Without the designation of this historic district, we will likely see the unfortunate demolition or marring alteration of many of the proposed district’s signature buildings, and as a secondary consequence, the forced relocation of the creative industries that have taken root within them.

It is vital to our sense of history that we preserve West Chelsea’s legacy as a warehousing and manufacturing center served by waterfront transport, street-level and elevated rail, and marked by significant contributions of brick, terra cotta, and reinforced concrete design. As the West Side Yards are covered over, the most striking visible reminder of what West Chelsea was will be lost. The West Chelsea Historic District will be all that is left to remind and educate generations to come of West Chelsea’s valued and significant past for our city.

I would like to stress again how pleased I am that LPC has set such a fast timetable for following up on the City’s commitment after the West Chelsea rezoning. Designation will be the happy culmination of what has been a remarkable process. Originally conceived during the implementation of the Chelsea 197-a Plan, the dire need for a West Chelsea Historic District again surfaced during negotiations over the High Line/West Chelsea Rezoning. In fact, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for that rezoning provided a lengthy, educated list of worthy and historic buildings that have become part of today's proposal. Many times, it can seem to communities that environmental impact studies simply recognize problems and list possible mitigations, while actual follow-through is never realized. It is important and noteworthy that a significant mitigation is today being heard by LPC, and without major delay following the rezoning. The West Chelsea Historic District is an example of what good public process can realize when the City, elected officials and the community work together in a forthright and expeditious process; I can only hope that similar processes are happening, and will happen, across our city.