From BACKSTAGE.COM, reprinted with permission, 2003

January 9, 2003

S. Village Historic District Proposed Boundaries Would Help Ensure Survival of Area Theatres

By Leonard Jacobs

With the former Circle in the Square Downtown sporting a prominent "for rent" sign and the Sullivan Street Playhouse ghost-like after the closing of "The Fantasticks," the quantity of Greenwich Village theatrical venues, at least south and west of Washington Square Park, seems to be shrinking. Indeed, while the outer shell of the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street may still be standing, New York University not long ago converted it for use as classroom space for the law school.

One organization, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, is sufficiently concerned with the potential dwindling of the area's theatrical venues--and with raging overdevelopment across a broad swath of the neighborhood--that it is proposing the creation of a South Village Historic District as a bulwark against unchecked demolition, ineffective zoning, and rampant construction.

According to the Society's executive director, Andrew Berman, the boundaries of the proposed district are still under review, but their rough outlines have already been determined. Beginning on the west side of LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street, the district would extend south to the corner of Grand Street in SoHo, then west and then northwest in a modified zig-zag pattern until reaching the narrow ravines sprouting out from Seventh Avenue South, including Carmine, Downing, Jones, and Cornelia streets.

What, legally, would be gained by such a designation? According to Berman, it would become "highly unusual for demolitions to be allowed, and certainly there would be restrictions on any new construction."

A Warning Shot Across NYU's Bow

On Dec. 12, with its proposal for a South Village Historic District firmly in mind, the Society sent a letter to the new president of New York University, John Sexton, referencing the Provincetown Playhouse. Signed by Berman, State Senator Thomas K. Duane, and City Council members Christine Quinn and Alan J. Gerson, the letter refers to "reports that NYU is seeking to purchase the federal rowhouses at 125-131 MacDougal Street, adjacent to the Provincetown Playhouse." The signatories additionally state they "would be adamantly opposed to any plan by NYU to tear down or significantly modify any of these buildings (including the Playhouse)," and ask Sexton to share "any plans NYU currently has for the site and commit to sharing any plans NYU may consider as they develop."

According to Berman, the letter's purpose was not to rattle cages or sabers. Rather, it was impress upon NYU's new leader the seriousness of the group's proposal. He notes that a South Village Historic District would not just protect the Provincetown Playhouse, Circle in the Square Downtown, and the Sullivan Street Playhouse. At least another three theatrical venues, including the Minetta Lane Theatre, the Players Theatre, and the cinema under renovation at West 3rd Street at Sixth Avenue, would be allowed some legal protections as well, to say nothing of the many low-rise apartment buildings, boutique shops, and sites of significant cultural interest in the area.

While Berman has not received a "formal response" from Sexton, he believes "conversations have taken place" between the owners of the properties and the university. He further believes "internal conversations" that have transpired within the university itself have "become public knowledge," thus prompting the letter.

Proposing the District

Founded in 1980, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation seeks to "preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of the Village." As such, the organization spearheads many programs, including lectures, tours, exhibitions, publications, and a school program. The creation of the South Village Historic District is a natural extension of that mission, and is, by far, the most formidable undertaking in the organization's history.

To create the formal proposal for the district--to be presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for public review--the Society will "enlist the aid of several students to catalogue every building for a building-by-building study containing all the data about each structure, including who built it, when it was built, what physical changes have been made over the years, and what historical and cultural information exist about them. We will then hire an architectural historian to weave together the information into a thesis that proves why the area is worthy of designation."

One worry, of course, is that property owners--of which New York University is among the largest--will object to the proposal, but Berman believes that may not necessarily be the case. He hopes instead that people "will see the wisdom in preserving the area--not in amber, but in such a way that the fabric of the district remains intact." Still, he cautions, "we're taking nothing for granted."

"You might argue that designating the area a historic district would not be in NYU's interest--especially if it did want to purchase those rowhouses and if it did want to demolish the part of the street that includes the Provincetown Playhouse--but what we are looking for is for NYU to respond by positioning itself as a productive, protective member of the community." And Berman is hopeful that it will.

For the record, a call from Back Stage to the office of President Sexton went unreturned at press time.