Landmarks Commission Has the ‘Back’ of a 160-Year-old Tribeca Building

Left: The rear of 83-85 Worth Street above the first floor. A surviving pair of steel shutters remains over one window. Right: The building's front facade. Photos: Gabellini Sheppard (rear); Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib (front) 

Sep. 01, 2018

The rear wall of 83-85 Worth Street may not be much to look at. But then again, the old facade has looked pretty much like that for nearly 160 years. The rows of small, iron-framed windows recall a distant past, when neckties and scarves, pocketbooks and wallets and many other goods were made and wholesaled there, and when this section of Tribeca, once the textile capital of North America, was its home.

Calling the weathered wall worthy of saving, the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently rejected a developer’s proposal, part of a condominium conversion plan, to transform this largely intact remnant of Tribeca’s industrial history into a rear facade of big, airy picture windows, with French doors and balconies. (With only four feet of clearance from the building behind it, the residents would need all the sunlight they could get.)

Though hidden from public view—the LPC normally considers alterations visible from the street—this wall got special protection.

“Usually I don’t worry about the rear facades of buildings,” said Commissioner Ann Holford-Smith during an August hearing, “but in this case I do start to worry about the amount of historic [material] that is being removed.”

In an advisory opinion, Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee had agreed.  “Ripping it all out and putting in floor-to-ceiling windows with balconies,” co-chair Bruce Ehrmann told the project’s architect, Michael Gabellini,“it’s not what Tribeca is about. The windows that are there are beautiful.”

But plans for the rear wall were just one part of a much larger restoration plan for the building that was approved and mostly praised by the LPC and CB1. That proposal includes exposing the building’s long hidden cast-iron columns, restoring the marble on the front facade and replacing the front windows with wood-framed windows. New wood storefront doors and windows also would be installed to match the building’s original appearance.

The front facade restoration is meant to return the look of 83-85 Worth Street to a time when it stood among a grand row of similar cast-iron, marble-clad loft buildings between Church Street and Broadway. Such structures were part of a four-block section of eastern Tribeca known as Worth Village, the center of the nation’s textile wholesale industry. Before their demolition in the 1960s for the former AT&T Long Lines Building and its plaza, a similar row of buildings stood on the south side of Worth Street.

As for the residential conversion plans, the developer, Beekman Real Estate Investment Management, is turning the second, third and fourth floors of the building into single 3,500-square-foot apartments. A penthouse would be added to the fifth floor to create two duplex apartments, topped with a clearstory.

Community Board 1 lauded the restoration project but said the addition, 14 feet high with a 24 foot elevator bulkhead, was too visible when seen from the plaza across the street. Testifying before the Landmarks Commission, Simeon Bancroft, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, agreed, saying it should be “scaled down.” (He also called for leaving the rear facade intact.)

Six of the eight commissioners voted to approve the visible penthouse along with the rest of the application—rejecting only the proposal for the back wall.

“It’s an exquisite project,” said Commissioner Aid Shamir-Baron, “and I don’t mind seeing whatever it is we’re seeing.”