By Carter B. Horsley
The Landmarks Preservation Commission held
a 7-hour hearing July 15, 2008 on "hardship" applications
from St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Centers to demolish the Edward
and Theresa O'Toole Medical Services Building on the west side
of Seventh Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets and erect a new
hospital complex on its site. The hospital has entered an agreement
with the Rudin family, one of the city's major developers, to
residentially redevelop many of its properties on the east side
of Seventh Avenue
Several elected officials such as City Council
Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer,
State Senator Thomas K. Duane and Representative Jerrold Nadler
spoke in favor, albeit with some reservations, of the hospital's
recently revised plans that lowered the height of the proposed
new hospital tower to 299 feet 4 inches and preserved several
of its existing buildings that its original plan had planned to
demolish (see The City Review article on
original plans and The City Review article
on the revised plans).
Civic organizations such as the Greenwich Village
Society for Historic Preservation indicated they still had problems
with the revised plans and many other speakers, many wearing "Protect
Our Village" labels, angrily denounced the elected officials
and argued that the hospital's revised plan was still "too
tall" and "too dense" and that it had not fully
explored alternative plans.
At lunchtime, a rally was held by Friends of
the New St. Vincent's across the street from the New York University
School of Law building where the hearing was held. Scores of people
waved placards stating "We Deserve A World -Class Hospital"
and chanted loudly supporting a new hospital.
The surprise of the hearing came from Frederic
Schwartz, the architect noted for imaginative urban schemes, who
told the hearing that he is collaborating with Albert C. Ledner,
the architect of the O'Toole building, on a plan, shown at the
top of this article, to preserve the building as the base for
a new hospital tower structure that would be a "twin intersecting
circular glass block extrusion with operable strip windows like
the circular glass block volume and the ground floor." Mr.
Ledner designed the building in 1964 for the National Maritime
Union and the hospital acquired it in 1979.
Mr. Schwartz said he had received a telephone
call from Mr. Ledner last week from New Orleans where Mr. Schwartz
is restoring and converting Edward Durell Stone's 30-story World
Mr. Schwartz said that "the floor plates,
stacking of functions and the height of floors are the same as
the Pei Cobb Freed design" commissioned by the hospital.
That design called for an "ovoid" tower setback on a
low-rise base. "essentially the only difference is in the
form which would I believe make it easier to preserve the O'Toole
building from a structural point of view. The glass block tower,
by the nature of its material and scale, will offer an ephemeral
and light appearance," Mr. Schwartz declared. Mr. Ledner
had employed glass blocks in part of the base of the O'Toole Building.
"The 1964 O'Toole building is the Village's
own Guggenheim. Instead of being filled with Art it was filled
with working people. And unlike, for example, the addition to
Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim by Gwathmey Siegel - we have the
architect to work with - and that is the main reason I am here.
Pei Cobb Freed is an excellent choice to design this hospital
(think of their addition and preservation at Bellevue) - why not
preserve and add here as well. To his credit, the talented partner
in charge, Ian Bader, has expressed an interest in meeting with
Albert to discuss this alternative," Mr. Schwartz continued.
The Ledner/Schwartz plan is a bit similar to
the reflective-glass, curved tower that had been designed by Sir
Norman Foster to rise above the north end of the former Parke-Bernet
Building at 980 Madison Avenue (see The
City Review article). That plan stirred considerable community
opposition and was recently significantly revised and downscaled
(see The City Review article).
Although there was only one rendering available
and it has not too detailed, it was more attractive than the hospital's
two tower designs because of its rounded form and color and the
fact that thematically was somewhat related to the base.
At a previous meeting on the hospital's application
for certificates of appropriateness for its plans the commission's
members indicated they considered the O'Toole Building an important
example of modern architecture and the hospital subsequently filed
hardship applications on the grounds that its demolition was necessary
for it to carry out its charitable purposes and replace its existing
hodge-podge of facilities with low ceilings and unaligned floors
with a state-of-the-art facility.
Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, the actors
who live near the hospital spoke separately in opposition to the
revised hospital plans. She said that more time should be spent
on studying alternatives both on their properties and elsewhere.
Many of the speakers were critical of the hospital
for not studying alternatives but many of them left before the
late afternoon when the hospital did in fact present and analyze
numerous alternatives for expansion on their properties.
The Ledner/Schwarz scheme is pretty attractive
and it always is nice to have the input of the original architect.
It is certainly more symmetrical and graceful than the hospital's
current proposal and it is a very handsome solution to the rooftop
addition solution. The big question, of course, is how does it
work pragmatic for the hospital's needs in terms of floorplans,
circulation, and construction costs. It probably is not too far
off the mark, but detail studies need and should be made.
Objections to the height of the buildings really
are inappropriate if the resulting plan is stunning and workable.
Arguments that the conversion of several of the existing hospital
buildings to residential uses is better than the original Rudin
scheme lead to a hodge-podge of unexciting and bland mid-block
buildings that have nothing to do with the traditional, mid-block
townhouse ambience of much of Greenwich Village.
In October, 2008, the Landmarks Preservation
Commission voted 6 to 4 to grant the hospital its hardship application
to demolish the Ledner building (see The
City Review article).
An article in the January 5, 2009 on-line edition
of The Architect's Newspaper said that some commissioners
of the Landmarks Preservation Commission "expressed shock
and surprise" when presented December 16, 2008 with the latest
design by St. Vincent's Hospital for a building to replace Albert
Ledner's nautically styled National Maritime Union Building on
the west side of Seventh Avenue between 12th and 13th Street.
The hospital has entered an agreement with
Rudin Management to redevelop its properties with residential
condominiums by converting some existing buildings and erecting
some new ones so that the hospital can erect a new facility on
the site of the Ledner building, which is now known as the Edward
and Theresa O'Toole Medical Services Building.
The commission voted in October 6 to 4 to grant
the hospital permission to demolish the Ledner building, which
is notable for its scalloped edges on the grounds of hardship
but it asked the hospital to continue to explore other design
The article by Matt Chaban article was accompanied
by a rendering, shown here, of a rectilinear tower designed by
Ian Bader of Pei Cobb Freed as an "alternative" to the
previously submitted designed with a broad curved "lenticular"
facade facing south.
The article quoted commissioner Stephen Byrns
as stating that "For the better part of a year, we've been
looking at this project, and I think it is as inappropriate as
when we started," adding "I cannot even begin to comment
on the architecture given its out-of-scale bulk."
The lenticular design would lower the height
of the planned tower of about 300 feet by about 36 feet.
Commissioner Margery Perlmutter said, according
to the article, that "It's a little bit frustrating when
every time we ask for alternatives, we get an off-handed response
that lacks the quality, details, and attention of the original
proposal," she said. The article said she endorsed a proposal
put forward by Byrns that would either bridge or build over a
section of West 12th Street, thus allowing the hospital to incorporate
a 15,000-square-foot triangular lot that is planned to serve as
a loading dock, but the developer said that between the complexity
of demapping the street and the parameters of making the hospital
function properly, such an approach would be nearly impossible.
The article said that "several commissioners
said that the alternative proposal obviously did not work, and
that they favored the lenticular design" and added that "perhaps
most importantly, commission chair Robert Tierney seems to support
the lenticular plan, as well."
The Rudin Organization has also promised to
convert part of a property nearby as a neighborhood public school
for the community as part of the protracted controversy over the
Last May, the commission informally but definitely
told St. Vincent's to go back to the drawing board because its
plan to demolish O'Toole to build a 325-foot-tall new hospital
on the west side of Seventh Ave. at 11th St. would not be appropriate
for the historic district. The hospital came back two weeks later
with the proposed hospital tower reduced to 299 feet tall and
a residential tower on the east side of Seventh Ave. to be built
by the Rudin Organization reduced from 265 feet tall to 200 feet.
At a meeting in June, Frederic Schwartz, an
architect noted for imaginative urban schemes, announced that
he was collaborating with Mr. Ledner to preserve the O'Toole building
as the base for a new hospital tower structure that would be a
"twin intersecting circular glass block extrusion with operable
strip windows like the circular glass block volume and the ground
floor." Mr. Ledner designed the building in 1964 for the
National Maritime Union and the hospital acquired it in 1979.
In October, 2008, when members of the Landmarks
Preservation Commission made what they called the hardest choice
of their landmarking careers-whether or not to grant St. Vincent's
Hospital the right to demolish Albert C. Ledner's iconic National
Maritime Union in Greenwich Village and build a 300-foot-tall
hospital tower on the site-the commissioners made two things clear.
First, any votes in favor of the hospital's right to build were
not an endorsement of its designs for the new tower, which several
commissioners deemed out of scale and character with one of the
city's oldest historic districts. And second, St. Vincent's should
do everything in its power to explore alternative proposals that
could mitigate its impact on the neighborhood.
So when the hospital and development partner
Rudin Management returned to the commission with their latest
plans on December 16, some commissioners expressed shock and surprise
when presented with essentially the same proposal unveiled in
May. "For the better part of a year, we've been looking at
this project, and I think it is as inappropriate as when we started,"
commissioner Stephen Byrns told the applicant. "I cannot
even begin to comment on the architecture given its out-of-scale
bulk." Commissioner Elizabeth Ryan even poked fun at the
design. "Ever since you presented us with your designs, there
has been talk about how the tower disappears from its base,"
she said. "I think it needs to disappear entirely."
Thus began round two in the saga of St. Vincent's
and the O'Toole Building, a project that is all but certain to
drastically reshape its West Village neighborhood. Indeed, an
alternative design presented for the tower caused almost as much
anger as it was meant to assuage, and prompted several commissioners
to offer their support for the hospital's original plans.
The new proposal, presented by Ian Bader, a
principal at Pei Cobb Freed, which is designing the hospital for
St. Vincent's, offered a rectilinear shape in contrast to the
previous lenticular design. With its sheer facade rising from
the street wall, the alternative would shave just 36 feet off
its taller sibling, the maximum height the developers argued they
could possibly trim.
"Pretty significant square footage has
been taken out of the hospital already," Lou Meilink, a principal
and health care planning expert at Ballinger, told the commission.
"We just couldn't make any more cuts and still have a functioning
level-one trauma center."