“Someone has stolen my building!”
So declared Beverley Moss Spratt, the former chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, in a 1974 front page story in the Times upon learning that what remained of the facade of the first cast-iron building ever constructed in the city had been stolen from a lot on Chambers Street and sold for scrap. The episode haunts the commission, which is why it approached 74 Grand Street so cautiously during a September 22 hearing.
In 2004, excavation work was underway at neighboring 72 Grand Street, on the corner of Wooster Street. According to neighbors, the work was far from adequate, especially given the area’s silty soil. Then it rained for almost two weeks. The foundation at 74 Grand buckled. The five-story loft building slid a full 13.5 inches out of alignment, leading to emergency shoring and evacuation. It has sat vacant ever since. But it continues to stir.
Over the past five years, 74 Grand has continued to settle, now overhanging the adjacent lot by about two feet. And it has begun to bring much of the block with it, pulling a one-story building at 76 Grand more than a foot out of alignment, while another loft building at 78 Grand has shifted up to 7 inches, with similar concerns now mounting at 80 Grand.
On September 8, the Department of Buildings determined that 74 Grand must now be demolished, but because it is located in the Soho Cast Iron Historic District, the demolition must be approved by the commission. Furthermore, the owners of 74 Grand are responsible for the work, but the cooperative of owners that were forced out of the building want nothing to do with it any longer, so there are as yet no plans for the building’s reconstruction. Instead, the owners want to demolish the building and store the facade until it can be sold to someone else and the site rebuilt.
But both the storage and the sale worry the preservation commission. “I’m not opposed to demolition, I believe it is unavoidable,” Commissioner Fred Bland said. “My point is storage. It’s got to be protected.” Some commissioners debated putting a lien on the property or creating stiff fines to ensure that nothing happens to the facade, and to make it clear to the next owner that the commission expects the building to be rebuilt as is.
Another issue raised by the neighbors is that the demolition of 74 Grand presents an enticing development opportunity, because two vacant lots will sit next to the nondescript building at 76 Grand. “We want to make sure this facade isn’t patched into some monstrosity,” Stella Sands of 78 Grand, told the commission.
And then there is the issue of ensuring that the demolition of 74 Grand does not further the collapse of its neighbors. Though no definitive plan has been devised, the commission’s counsel said the owners of 74 Grand have agreed to safe storage and demolition, which would be paid for with the proceeds from a pending settlement with 72 Grand. Still, some commissioners remained unconvinced, with the demolition approved by a vote of 6-3.
A version of this article appeared in AN 10.07.2009.