35 Cooper Square: Rebutting the Landmarks Commission

35 Cooper Square.

At today’s meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Mary Beth Betts (the LPC’s head of research) gave a presentation on the criteria used in deciding which Federal houses are worthy of landmarking.  As just about everyone on the Lower East Side knows by now, the Commission has refused to offer protection to 35 Cooper Square, which is in danger of being demolished.

During the presentation, Betts reiterated the LPC’s position that the 1827 house lacks necessary historic details and original building materials to qualify for protection.  Community activists, of course, disagree. They’ll likely be on hand tonight when Community Board 3 passes a resolution in support of preservation.

One of those testifying before CB3’s landmarks committee earlier this month was Kerri Culhane, an historian working with the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors. In preparation for an application to the State of New York requesting historic designation for the Bowery, she has researched and written a thorough history of 35 Cooper Square. See the full text of that document after the jump:

ARCHITECTURE

When it was built sometime between 1825 and 1827, 35 Cooper Square would have been typical of its period and function. A modest, two-and-a-half-story brick house and store or workshop, with a generous attic under a “peaked” roof, lit by a pair of dormers. But given its great age, its relative intactness, and the fact that the majority of its neighbors have been heavily altered or entirely replaced, its survival to this day is remarkable.

The defining architectural characteristics of the urban Federal era (ca. 1790-1830) rowhouse include the form, most commonly two-and-one-half to three-and-one-half stories; gambrel or side-gable roofs featuring single or paired dormers; Flemish bond brickwork (sometimes cladding a frame structure); and simple stone lintels.

My recent research has identified at least twenty-six buildings dating to the Federal period still standing on the Bowery, of which twelve, due to minimal alterations, still clearly represent the era. Over time, many of the Bowery’s two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half-story buildings were enlarged or “modernized” by being raised to three and four or more stories; the peaked or pitched roofs, as they were called, (gable or gambrel) were replaced by flat roofs, but 35 Cooper Square retained its form and Federal-period character.  All have been subject to first-floor storefront alterations, including those in the NoHo Landmark District.

The Brownstone Stucco Debate

As early as 1864, we have evidence that the façade of 35 Cooper Square was clad in brownstone ashlar. A painting in the New York Public Library’s I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection of American Historical Prints, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, depicts the façade as brown, unlike the brick buildings, which are more orangish and red.

The Cooper Union Foundation Building (1853-59), a magnificent brownstone edifice, may have inspired its modest neighbor at 35 Cooper Square to update its look to reflect the fashion for brownstone of the period. The Italianate style, which often featured brownstone ashlar, was popular during the 1850s-70s.  We have no clear date when the brownstone was applied, but have evidence that it was there by 1864, and we can say it was likely to have happened during the period that the treatment was popular, the 1850s or early 1860s.

The current ashlar-mimicking stucco on the facade of 35 Cooper likely masks remnants of real brownstone ashlar below. Often stucco is used to repair brownstone that has been damaged or worn from weathering. While it is not clear when the most recent touching up of the stucco occurred, the original version of 35 Cooper Square’s brownstone stucco finish may have been applied in 1875, when the storefront was modified. The architect’s drawing on file in the Municipal Archives indicates that the pre-renovation façade treatment was “brownstone.” It was real brownstone ashlar, so modifications to the storefront would require a repair of ashlar damaged in the process. This could have been achieved with stucco.

Without access to investigate the building first hand, it is not possible to determine whether there is any brownstone under the stucco today [there probably is]; or when the original ashlar was applied: at the time of construction [which would be truly amazing]; or added later [far more likely–a gesture to the Italianate period of the 1850s & 60s).

 

HISTORIC CONTEXT

Formerly 391 Bowery, 35 Cooper Square was built between 1825-27, as one of four houses developed on the land of Nicholas William Stuyvesant (389-395 Bowery; 389 was demolished for the Cooper Square hotel; 393-395 appear to have been demolished by the mid nineteenth century). Stuyvesant was a direct descendant of the Dutch West India (DWI) Company’s last director-general, Petrus Stuyvesant; his real estate developments marked the last phase of transformation of the Stuyvesant family’s Great Bowery, the farm laid out by the DWI for the benefit of New Amsterdam’s director-generals in 1626, and purchased by Petrus Stuyvesant in 1651.

Into the early nineteenth century, the development pattern north of North Street (Houston Street) remained very rural. Only by 1808 did the “line of houses [along the Bowery] extends north to Bond Street” (Stokes Vol III:488).  Bowery Village, arrayed along the Bowery near Astor Place and the Bowery’s two-mile stone (two miles from City Hall), was a small settlement established in 1660. In 150 years, it had not expanded much beyond a thousand feet in any direction. The small village and surrounding area was considered “out of town,” and a place of resort for those seeking respite from New York proper.

In 1811, the Commissioners Plan to establish a street grid north of already developed areas was mapped by surveyor John Randel.  South of Houston Street was already a haphazard jumble of streets, with and occasional section of irregular grid, but farms and pasture predominated north of Houston and east of the Bowery. In the pre-grid Cooper Square area, Randel’s map (1811) shows buildings addressing the east side of what we now consider the Fourth Avenue side of Cooper Square. This was originally the main route of the Bowery, which at that time followed the diagonal path Fourth Avenue now takes toward Union Square.

Third Avenue, branching off of the Bowery and thus creating the fork in the road and the triangle now occupied by the Cooper Union Foundation Building, was proposed in 1811 and not built until the early 1820s. Many earlier buildings on the east side of the Bowery had to be dismantled, and the rural lanes that were part of the previous settlement were erased.

Stuyvesant’s four buildings, built in 1825-27, were among the first ever built on this new road—the Bowery spur of Third Avenue. Because of the realignment of the street pattern to accommodate the new grid, 35 Cooper Square is an artifact of the most significant urbanization effort of New York, which left us with the grid system that now blankets the island, and urban buildings that directly address the sidewalk and street.

Thanks to the research of local artist and community activist Sally Young, we know about the occupational history of the building, which also lend to the building’s significance. The earliest evidence of the resident fruit seller, John Snider, comes from the 1833 City Directory. By 1850, Henry Marshall was the resident business owner, operating a porterhouse on the first floor until 1874. During Marshall’s tenure, the Marshall House, as it was known during the Civil War, was the scene of festivities, including sword ceremonies, celebrating the return of prisoners of war from Richmond. “A splendid collation, liberally provided by the worthy host, Mr. MARSHALL, was then partaken of, and a regular feu-de-joie of champagne corks was kept up during the evening by those assembled” (NYT March 23, 1862).

By the late 1890s, one of the buildings on this block of Cooper Square operated as a gay “resort” called Little Bucks, which is described in testimony of the Mazet Committee (1899) on corruption in New York City as being opposite Paresis Hall (392 Bowery). 35 Cooper is a candidate to have housed Little Bucks:  it operated as a saloon and, shortly after the Mazet Committee report, was reclassified as a “hotel,” –a ruse to get around excise laws, a central issue in the Mazet Committee testimony.

 

1960-70s

Between 1962 and 1965, Beat poet Diane DiPrima lived and wrote at 35 Cooper Square.  With poet LeRoi Jones [now known as Amiri Baraka, former resident of 27 Cooper Square], Di Prima produced several editions of their legendary and influential mimeographed journal, The Floating Bear, in the upper floors of the house.  DiPrima recalled that the first Floating Bear edition published at 35 Cooper was #26, dated 1962, and guest edited by Billy Name, a regular visitor and part-time resident of 35 Cooper. The offices of the New York Poet’s Theatre and the Poet’s Press, as well as Floating Bear, were housed at 35 Cooper during DiPrima’s residency.

Diane DiPrima left when the building was sold to Stan Sobossek, a painter, in fall 1965. Sobossek ran a bar and club here, ca. 1965-1970s, beneath his painting studio. Hisea Vilca eventually took over the space from Sobossek to run her bar and restaurant businesses (link to story of Hisea).

Evidence suggests that the building functioned as a porterhouse, liquor saloon, and bar—a neighborhood watering hole—almost unceasingly, since the time Henry Marshall first occupied the building in the mid-nineteenth century until the Asian Pub’s recent eviction.

35 Cooper Square is eligible for listing in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.  The building’s history is representative of the Bowery history as a whole, which itself tells the story of New York. The life of this building coincides with the period of dynamic transformation of the Bowery from a rural lane to the main business district in town; from the pleasure district of the mid to late nineteenth century to the cultural center of downtown New York in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

If the Bowery’s development is a mirror of the history of New York (and it is), to lose these early artifacts is to be left with a distorted image.

 

THE LARGER PLANNING ISSUE

35 Cooper Square is one of a group of Federal-era buildings proposed as a Landmark by the Municipal Art Society/Columbia University Bowery Preservation Plan (2004), but the recommendation was never acted upon; It is also called out as a Building of Special Significance in the East Bowery Preservation Plan (2009), a community-based effort to establish contextual zoning and height caps to correct a major zoning flaw on the Bowery: The majority of the west side of the Bowery is subject to the zoning overlays of the Special Little Italy District (1977, which created a height cap and design regulations to protect the character of the neighborhood) and the NoHo Landmarks districts (NoHo, NoHo East, NoHo Extension); the east side is unregulated. The plan has been ignored by the Department of City Planning, which favors developers over the community.

Recent buildings on the Bowery are decidedly out of character, scale, and context with their neighbors: they are non-urban types that fail to maintain the street wall (Cooper Union’s new building; Cooper Square Hotel); or types previously restricted to the suburbs or second class cities (Avalon’s Arquetectonica-designed Stamford-Connecticut-style glass boxes, ornamented with rental office phone numbers; NYU’s shabby Second Street Dorm; Scarano’s bleak middle-finger-to-the-neighborhood: 52 East 4th condo tower). Alarmingly, nearly ten percent of the Bowery’s buildings have been built within the past ten years. Some were constructed on vacant lots, but modest two-and-a-half to six-story buildings, which for a century or two have defined the character of the street, are being:

  • bought up and demolished by hotel speculators (250 Bowery, 3 buildings demolished, now a  stalled site).
  • treated to a  combination of partial demolition, eviction, and mothballing (183-189 Bowery); 185 Bowery, a unique building on the street, submitted to LPC for  landmark consideration, was decapitated and stripped by the owners Brack Capital to thwart the landmark process in the fall of 2010.
  • demolished and  replaced by high-rise hotels, and in the process destabilizing the historic  and tenant-filled neighbors (91 Bowery, resulting in the destabilization  and demolition of 128 Hester and 89 Bowery).

And losses on the horizon include the Salvation Army buildings at 327 Bowery (1923 & 1950, contributing resources to the Bowery National Register Historic District), which have just been bought by a French hotel group that has engaged the mediocre architectural services of Gene Kaufman to design what has been described as “the red tumor building.”

Perhaps the greatest affront by these buildings [and their developers] is that they are changing the character of the community by displacing residents and bringing in a transient but moneyed population. New development on the Bowery typically does not serve the long-term resident population.

35 Cooper Square connects the community to its past, but it is not just a relic. It is an important part of a varied and dynamic streetscape that, yes, will change over time; There is no need, other than financial, for the Bhatia company to demolish this building. You cannot replace the history that the building represents–let’s not  sacrifice the irreplaceable in favor of the average or the bottom line.

I’ll let Billy Name have the last word (quoting from an email he sent to Sally Young):

“the house looked dramatically rustic from the street and gave implications that its location near the bowery in lower manhattan may have once rung a different cultural bell. i seem to recall wooden broad plank floors and a very comfortable homey feeling from all the wood and open space and kitchen. and, as opposed to all the tenement buildings in its surrounds it actually looked and felt like it might be the perfect home for walt whitman . . . .  i was privileged to work with diane when i was very young (20 years old in 1960) and to cross paths in her abode with a full roster of the ‘beat’ poets and many of the central avant garde cultural figures in the art scene of the day. it should be designated a historic site and have a nice bronze plaque on the front.”