Design Nods to Old, New in Gansevoort District

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal on August 8, 2011

A rendering of the six-story office and retail building sits in the shadow of the Standard Hotel.

Almost a decade after the city established the Gansevoort Market Historic District, the neighborhood has drastically changed nonetheless. Metal awnings still hang off several historic buildings and a few meat hooks still swingalong Washington Street.

But the area now ebbs and flows with Town Cars, the High Line draws huge tourist crowds, and the much celebrated Standard Hotel, which opened in 2008, sits just a few feet from the district border at Washington Street.

Into this hodgepodge of old and new will soon step a six-story office and retail building designed by Morris Adjmi, which was approved by the Landmark Preservation Commission last month. Landmarks took such pains to preserve the non-descript meatpacking warehouse at 837 Washington Street that Mr. Adjmi’s twisted torso building literally will rise out of its façade.

On completion, the building will stand as a case study of how a design makes it through Landmarks while respecting neighborhood context and maintaining a semblance of the architect’s original intent. But it will also illustrate the limitations of a landmark district.  

Mr. Adjmi’s design is vaguely reminiscent of the infamous 1968 proposal to alter Grand Central Terminal with a 55-story tower by Marcel Breuer. The ultimately successful effort to block that plan--which would have preserved the face of the historic terminal but not the interior--went to the U.S. Supreme Court and formed the basis of modern landmark law. 

 But a meatpacking warehouse is far cry from Grand Central, a point not lost on neighborhood denizens. Sitting on a bench in front of an establishment called Hogs and Heifers a texting Chad Garber was asked what he thought of the dilapidated building.  “I don’t know anything about it, except that it’s across the street from the Standard,” he said.

Adam Kost, a veteran of late nights at Hogs, was perplexed about the effort to save 837 Washington. “It’s really unattractive compared to what’s going on down here. I don’t get the point,” he said. When shown the rendering of Mr. Adjmi’s design, Mr. Kost remained unmoved. “It’s always tough to polish a sneaker.”

 But what might look beige brick bunker in any other neighborhood represents the last phase of building when the area was still a functioning meatpacking district. Mr. Adjmi’s design nods to that manufacturing past not just by preserving the grit of the old façade, but also through the use of the exposed I-beam as the primary means of expression.

 The vertical beams twist from within the old building, each successive floor pivoting on an angle that seems provoked by the High Line, as if a motion blur on a passing train. As it rises in height the structure twists away farther away from the original and from the past. The tension turns the building into a metaphor, rather than a mere addition.

“I don’t think that every two story building in New York should be doing this,” said Mr. Adjmi. “Every case really needs to be looked at individually. This building certainly has formal merit as well historical fabric that made us look toward using it as a base.”

But the commission could have gone even further. Mr. Adjmi’s first two attempts at Landmarks were turned down due to height, never mind that the slender Standard, designed by Ennead Architects, hovers above the site. The push and pull with Landmarks saw Mr. Adjmi’s design go from 113 feet to 88 feet, sacrificing much of the design’s kinetic quality. 

Landmarks has been known to let pass some pretty wild buildings. Here, the commission could’ve acknowledged the tall new neighbor in The Standard and adapted a touch more to a very changed neighborhood.