Preservationists Decry LPC Decision on Electrifying, Privatizing Historic Clock

Forest Markowitz, watched by the city's clock master, Marvin Schneider, winds the Clock Tower Building's historic clock that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has approved to be sold as part of a private penthouse apartment. Power to the tower was cut after the developers bought the building, requiring the men to wind the clock by hand and preventing the bell from ringing and the clock from being lit at night. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Posted
Dec. 19, 2014

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Com­mission gave developers the green light last month to make Tribeca’s landmark clock tower at 346 Broadway part of a penthouse apartment and hand over its rare 1897 clockworks to the future buyer.

The 6-1 decision has some preservationists seething and talking of legal recourse.

The clock is said to be one of only two or three of its kind in the country that still runs as it has for more than 100 years.

“There are other avenues to explore,” said Forest Markowitz, who manually winds the clock each week with the city’s clock master, Marvin Schneider. “I don’t think it’s over yet.”

The commission’s approval came with the promise by the developers, Peebles Corp. and the El Ad Group, to keep the four-faced clock running—but they probably would disable the elaborate collection of gears, drive shafts and weights that are the trademark of its ingenious 19th-century technology.

“Our in­tention is to electrify the clock function so that it continues to provide the correct time to the general public, which it always has,” said John Beyer of Beyer Blinder Belle, the lead architect on the project.

The penthouse is part of the developers’ extensive restoration and condomin­ium conversion plans for the landmark building purchased from the city. Despite the numerous and much-lauded restoration intentions of the developers, it was the fate of the clock that occupied most of the hearing’s more than hour-long discussion, as it did at a first hearing in November.

The transformation of the clock tower and other protected spaces in 346 Broadway (also known as 108 Leonard Street) into private apartments is unprecedented in the city, and at the November hearing the commissioners voiced concerns about the clock being inaccessible to all but the penthouse owner.

Beyer returned this month to argue that the mechanism had never been accessible and “legally, practically and from a safety point of view” it shouldn’t be.

Schneider, the clock master, called that contention “specious.”

“The public has been going up there for the last 30 years,” he said, noting that the clock was accessible from the Clock­tower Gallery, which had occupied the building since 1972 and closed last year.

“I’ve been giving tours,” added Markowitz.

“I’m appalled. This is ridiculous,” Simeon Bankoff, president of the Historic Districts Council, said of the decision. He called it a “de facto reversal” of the designation of the clock and clock tower as historic city landmarks.

“When the city sold the building it was with the thought that the clock would be protected,” Bankoff said.

“It’s a very big building,” he added. “No one has to live in that space.”

Michael Hiller, a lawyer representing the Historic Districts Council and the So­ciety for the Architecture of the City, sent letters to LPC Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan explaining, in a lengthy legal opinion, why it is the commission’s right and duty to prevent the sale of the landmarked clock rooms and works.

“The developers purchased the Clock Tower Building well aware that it is subject to restrictions which they now seek to avoid,” he wrote.

Many of the commissioners, including Srinivasan, seemed swayed by the LPC’s legal counsel, Mark Silberman, who advised them that they cannot force the developer to continue operating the clock mechanically.

“I don’t see any basis in the law to re­quire that it be continually used as it has been used in the past,Silberman said.

Beyer acknowledged that he did not know what alterations would need to be made to the clock in order to electrify it, but he said he would return to the commission or its staff for those approvals.

According to Schneider, the rods that connect the clockworks to the clock face and turn the hands will have to be removed. “So basically,” he said, “you’re taking the heart and removing it.”

But the majority of commissioners said the developers’ plans for the clock were a worthy tradeoff.

“What’s the public good here?” Commissioner Michael Goldblum said. “The public good is the restoration of the building, which is a major win for the public. The guaranteed functionality of the clock into the future is above and beyond what the applicant is required to provide to this commission.”

Goldblum added, “He could say, ‘You know what, screw it, I’m going to let it go, I can’t wind it, tough luck. It will always be 5:15 at 108 Leonard St.’”

“I’d love to know that [the mechanical winding] is happening,” said Commissioner John Gustaffson, “but the visibility of the clock’s appearance is really the preservation issue.”

Against a wave of agreement by her fellow commissioners over the developers’ plans for the clock, Adi Shamir-Baron, newly appointed to the body, was resolute. “What exactly is the reason for electrifying the clock?” she asked Beyer.

“The principal issue would be that this is going to be somebody’s apartment and we have committed to running the clock,” he replied. “That means somebody has to come in every week and wind it up.”

“I cannot get my head around the clock tower issue,” she persisted, noting that in her visit to the site she determined that access to the clock for maintenance and winding would be possible on behalf of all the building’s residents if the tower were not turned into a penthouse.

“We’re going to not allow it to be manually wound so that it can be privately owned even though its designation is based on its public good?” said Sha­mir-Baron, who cast the lone opposing vote, saying she could support every oth­er part of the developers’ plans—except those for the clock and its tower.

The next day the Trib received an email from Marvin Schneider, who restored the historic timepiece 30 years ago and has been caring for it ever since.

“The commissioner who dissented,” the clock master wrote, “I feel is a heroine.”

 

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