Manhattan: The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, City Council Member Alan Gerson, and Village residents and preservationists rallied today to mark the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the construction of the Silver Towers complex, to call upon the City to landmark the development — an innovative modern design by I.M. Pei — and to protest plans by New York University to build a large new Science Center in the midst of the complex.
The complex consists of three 30-story towers built 40 years ago as part of an urban renewal project; two towers house NYU faculty, while the third, 505 LaGuardia Place, is an affordable residential co-op for local residents which NYU was required to build as a giveback to the community to replace housing they destroyed to make way for the complex.
The site of the new NYU Science Center would be directly in front of 505 LaGuardia Place. 505 residents and those assembled argue that the complex’s unique and innovative architecture merit preservation, and that an enormous new structure blocking the residential tower would violate the original spirit of the agreement, which allowed NYU to build the complex 40 years ago and required them to provide this housing as compensation for the effects of their development.
The Silver Towers superblock complex was assembled in the early 1960s by Robert Moses and given to NYU for “slum clearance” and expansion of their campus. However, due to the outcry over the loss of housing on the site, NYU was required to erect an affordable residential co-op within the development to offset the loss to the community.
Up-and-coming architect I.M. Pei was chosen to design the complex, which ended up being a watershed design in his career and a boldly innovative work with cutting edge applications of technology and materials, utilizing innovative thinking about urban planning, use of space, and sculptural form. The complex also included a striking 36 ft.-tall version of Picasso’s sculpture Portrait of Sylvette, built especially for the site, one of only two public outdoor Picasso sculptures in the Western Hemisphere. The design won multiple awards and Pei went on to be one of the most influential and celebrated architects of the late 20th century.
Recognizing the important contribution of this complex, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation requested that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission landmark the complex. That request was strongly supported by the Board of 505 LaGuardia Place, the residential co-op in the complex, and by its residents, who wrote hundreds of letters to the LPC in support. Typically, many owners are hesitant to have their properties designated as landmarks, wary of the obligation of regulation that it entails, and often oppose their properties being designated. However, in this case the Board and residents of 505 LaGuardia, who also own the building, fully supported the effort. City Council Member Alan Gerson, a long-time resident of the complex, was also a strong advocate for this effort. At GVSHP’s request, endorsements for the proposal have come from State Senator Tom Duane, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Municipal Art Society, the American Institute of Architects NYC Chapter, and several other modern architecture advocacy groups. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has acknowledged that it is reviewing and evaluating the request.
The bulk of the complex other than 505 LaGuardia Place is owned by NYU, however, and they have thus far withheld support for the landmarking proposal. By contrast NYU has instead announced its intention to build a large new Science Center on the site of a supermarket in the complex’s northwest corner, just a few feet from the front façade of the residential tower. Residents and advocates alike have protested that this could violate the integrity of the original design, which they hope to see preserved through landmarking, and would violate the spirit (or possibly more) of the original agreement whereby NYU was allowed to build the complex, as it would be a significant detriment to the livability of the housing which was built as a giveback to the community.
“We are here today to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking for a complex which many in today’s crowd love to call home. Since its completion in 1966, this complex benefited so many people with its ample, affordable housing, its striking modern design, its generous open space and public art, and its low-lying buildings that contrast and complement these three iconic towers. We are here today to call upon the City to make what has long been an unofficial landmark an official one, and to ensure that this innovative complex is preserved. And we are also here to call upon NYU to stand by its original commitments to the community and preserve the balance of open space and towers we see here, and not engage in another case of running roughshod over their neighbors by erecting a monstrous, out-of-place edifice where it does not belong,” stated GVSHP Executive Director Andrew Berman.
Berman also noted that a concern about the complex is the need for repairs to the facades of its innovative cast-in-place concrete towers and to its modernist plaza and grounds. The Board of 505 LaGuardia has committed to perform repairs to their building’s exterior in a manner that will restore and maintain its original features. However, NYU has begun work on the facades of its towers and the grounds it owns, but has refused to say if they are restoring the complex it its original conditions, or are making changes that might alter the design’s original details and run contrary to the effort to landmark the complex. GVSHP sent NYU President John Sexton a letter requesting details about the renovations in September and offering to help NYU plan its work to ensure that it preserves the complex’s distinctive features; President Sexton has not yet replied.
“When NYU is so frequently criticized for the anti-community feel of so many of its developments, you’d think they’d embrace a project which the community actually says works and merits praise. We are here to call upon NYU to support the landmarking effort, to ensure that its repairs maintain the integrity of the original Pei design, and to abide by its commitment to the community by ensuring that nothing built on the supermarket site detracts from the livability of housing which they were obligated to provide to the community many years ago. We have not forgotten that commitment,” said Berman.