Preservationists, Pace U. at Odds Over Razing of Famed Architects' Building

A historical, undated photo of 15 Beekman Street and the building today.

Jul. 10, 2020

An 1893 office building on Beekman Street, designed by the famed architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, is at the center of a campaign by preservationists and nearby residents to save the early “skyscraper” from demolition. The building’s advocates are pitted against Pace University and developer SL Green Realty, who plan to replace the building with a 27-story tower that the school calls the “cornerstone” of its campus master plan and critical to its future in Lower Manhattan.

In April, SL Green filed for a permit to take down the structure, which is now undergoing interior demolition.

Advocates are calling on the Landmarks Preservation Commission [LPC] to consider the building for landmark status.

Pace University and SL Green “are moving forward full steam ahead and what we need to hopefully get is our day in court, meaning that the Landmarks Preservation Commission would allow us to make a presentation,” said Marc Donnenfeld, who represents a group of residents opposing the tower. “We’re trying to get the building landmarked.”

The building is located in the federally and state designated 10-block Fulton-Nassau Historic District that includes a number of individual landmarks but is not recognized by the city as a historic district.

Efforts to save the structure, also known as the Vanderbilt Building for the family that developed it, is supported by the Historic Districts Council and Community Board 1, as well as McKim, Mead & White scholars Richard Guy Wiilson and Mosette Broderick, and architect Robert AM Stern. An online petition against the demolition has gathered more than 1,500 signatures. 

The advocates argue that the structure is a rare surviving example of a tall commercial building from McKim, Mead & White, whose works include the Washington Square Arch, the original Pennsylvania Station, Columbia University’s Lowe Memorial Library and the Brooklyn Museum.

“It’s a very early example of McKim, Mead & White doing tall buildings, which they really didn’t do that often. They didn’t like tall buildings,” Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said in an interview. “McKim, Mead & White is arguably the most important architecture firm in American history. They are an integral part of understanding how buildings look, and why buildings look the way they look today.” 

“I would consider this building one of the great ‘golden greats’ of the firm…” historian Mosette Broderick, author of “Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White,” wrote in a letter to the Landmarks Commission.

Stern, in his letter to the Commission, noted that the LPC had landmarked the buildings on each of the other three corners (the Morse Building, Potter Building and Temple Court) and the Vanderbilt Building “is the equal of these other three buildings and needs to be protected.” 

But an LPC letter to Donnenfeld and Bankoff said the building is not notable enough, either as an early skyscraper or as an example of the firm’s work, to warrant the city’s protection. “Based on our research and evaluation, 15-17 Beekman Street is an elegant and early tall building that is comparable to other contemporary examples that LPC has included in historic districts,” wrote Kate Lemos McHale, the Commission’s director of research. “However, the building is not considered a significant example of McKim, Mead & White’s work and does not rise to the level of an individual landmark.”

Donnenfeld insists that the staff made its determination “without a complete presentation, just based on quick perusal of limited research,” and can still be persuaded to at least consider the building for landmark status. 

“I regard this as the beginning of the conversation,” Bankoff said.

The LPC did not respond to a request for comment.

Pace University’s plan calls for replacing the 14-story, classical revival style building, as well as a smaller structure next door at 126-132 Nassau Street, with a 27-story campus hub of dorm rooms, dining facility, classrooms and library. Once the new building opens, Pace’s east campus (along Spruce Street, roughly east of William Street), which includes a dorm and classroom high-rise called Maria’s Tower, and the 750-seat Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, will be torn down. The Beekman Street tower will be funded by the sale of unused development rights on One Pace Plaza. With these rights, a developer could potentially build a 867,000-square-foot project on the site.

According to an internal Pace document, it would cost the school more than $100 million to make the existing east campus buildings fully code compliant.

The new tower “is vital to the health of Pace University and our continued role in Lower Manhattan,” Pace University’s assistant vice president of government and community relations, Vanessa Herman, told CB1 at its monthly meeting in May.

“After years of planning and analysis this location was brought to us as an ideal site for a new university building,” she also noted. Herman expanded on that position in a statement to the Trib, calling the proposed building the only practical site for a new Pace building that is in close proximity to One Pace Plaza and our historic building at 41 Park Row.

While not addressing the preservation issues around 15 Beekman Street at the full CB1 meeting, Herman and an SL Green executive, Brett Herschenfeld, complained that they had not been notified about CB1’s Landmarks Committee in May, which passed a resolution that called on the LPC to consider the building as a protected landmark. They asked the board to table the matter. 

“We’re disappointed that the community board would advance a landmark resolution in this fashion, taking up the issue without informing the owner or Pace University,” Herschenfeld told the full board, which went on to approve the resolution.

“It was a perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black, when they had filed for a demolition permit in April,” Donnenfeld responded.

Herman did not answer the Trib's request for comment on claims that the school will be sacrificing a historic building for its new tower. “We look forward to updating the community board in the fall,” she wrote in an email statement. “At this time all of our efforts are focused on preparing for the safe return of our students, faculty and staff to campus.

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