Many Chime In on the Fate of Tribeca's Landmark Clock

Architect David Beyer of Beyer Blinder Belle presents the Landmarks Preservation Commission with condo conversion and restoration plans for 346 Broadway. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Dec. 01, 2014

The Landmarks Preservation Com­mission last month found much to praise about the extensive restoration and condominium conversion plans for 346 Broadway, otherwise known as Tribeca’s Clock Tower Building.

But then there was the matter of the clock, and the tower.

As part of their plan, developers Peebles Corp. and the El Ad Group propose to make the landmark-designated four-faced clock, its works and the interior of the grand tower that houses them, part of a privately owned four-level penthouse.

It was a proposal that had the commission deliberating—and the public opposing—at a hearing that lasted for more than three hours.

Under private ownership, the commissioners pondered, can the 1898 clock—one of the few of its type still in operation—continue to run, and by what means? How can the city protect a landmark inside someone’s home, or should the clock be there in the first place?

Uncertainty over those questions still hung in the room as the team of developers and architects filed out, with no vote taken on the proposal. But among the commissioners there had been clear discomfort with the notion of putting this precious timepiece in private hands.

The clock and its tower are landmarks that sit atop a landmark, the former headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Co., that the city took over in 1967 and sold to the developers earlier this year. Along with an office space on the second floor, they are interior landmarks that would have the unique distinction of being city-protected spaces inside private homes.

“If the owner decides to redecorate, he’s got to submit to Landmarks [for approval]?” Commissioner Michael Goldblum asked the LPC’s general counsel, Mark Silberman.

“It’s an awkward situation, no doubt,” Silberman replied.

“If the clock stopped working the commission could not issue a violation saying the clock must continue to work,” Silberman said later.

“I think there has to be a clear line between that which is landmarked and that which is not,” Goldblum said.  “Having bedrooms, bathrooms, closets in landmarked interiors is nuts.”

Goldblum suggested a trade. The commission would remove the landmark status of the interior second-floor spaces and, in exchange, the developers would make the clock tower and its base common areas of the condominium.

“I think one could arrange a trade where such a mechanism could be en­shrined in use and the clock could run,” he said.

Commission Chair Meenakshi Sri­nivasan said that approvals for parts of the plan that had brought objections, such as visible elements on the roof, might be traded for making the clock tower a common area of the building.

“This would be a way of addressing the overall package of preservation and restoration by giving us something which is more public,” she said.

R. Donahue Peebles, CEO of the Peebles Corp., argued that the clock tower would be no less public in private hands than it has been in the past and, besides, it could not comply with handicap access and other code requirements.

“This clock tower mechanism has ne­ver been a publicly accessible space,” he said. “Who would go up to look at the mechanism other than a clock operator?”

“It used to be public. I’ve been up there,” someone in the room called out, an apparent reference to the Clocktower Gallery, operated in the tower for 40 years offering art and performances.

Commissioner Roberta Washington said the issue was less about access than about the continued functioning of the clock “as it is, that it be serviced or maintained so that the clock works. I don’t think this is about the public being able to get to it.”

“It’s our goal to keep it operational,” Peebles said, without elaborating on how that could be accomplished.

A series of public speakers testified against the privatization of the clock. One of them was Marvin Schneider, the city’s clock master who helped re­store the clock nearly 35 years ago and with Forest Markowitz has been keeping it running. Schneider noted that the landmark designation of the clock in 1987 called for the protection of the clock and its functioning mechanism.

“Clearly the intent was to have the machinery working, serving as an example of American horological workmanship in its original space performing in the function for which it was manufactured,” he said. To do otherwise, he added, would be a “naked assault on the meaning of designation.”

“Surely this monumental building pro­vides enough space to make a sizable profit in the city’s robust residential market,” said Barbara Zay of the Historic Dis­tricts Council. “Must our interior land­marks become victims of such schemes?”

Eileen Herman, who lives nearby, said it is hard to imagine living without it. “It’s devastating to me to think that I will no longer hear it chime,” she said.

As the hearing drew to an end, Srinivasan called for a visit to the building before the next hearing. That gave Jeremy Woodoff, who had testified for the protection of the clock and its workings, a glimmer of hope.

“Getting them into the building and the clock tower would be a very good thing to do,” he said. “At least they’re paying attention to the issue.”