The Box Versus The Contents

by Don Friedman on March 13, 2018

This article at the New York Review of Books is both a celebration of the people who have made the old St. Denis Hotel their professional home and a depressing discussion of commercial gentrification. The building is being emptied of tenants prior to redevelopment, for the second time. Its first big change was just about 100 years ago, when it was converted from a hotel to offices.

As I’ve talked about before, saving a facade or even a building can be a less-than-complete victory if everything else about a building is gone. Yes, historic preservation is a movement about saving buildings and other structures, but ultimately the physical object matters because of the social life it contains. Adaptive reuse is the surest way to save a building from demolition, by keeping it occupied.

In this case, the building will be adaptively reused, but at the expense of the type of tenants who’ve been in the building for decades. I’m not trying to paint the new developer as evil: the issue is real estate pressure. New York’s population growth (roughly 1,500,000 from 1980 to the present) and business growth mean that the city needs more space and the push for this space has made viable projects that would not have made economic sense in the past. If people will pay $60 per square foot for office space in Greenwich Village, then it is possible to redevelop the St. Denis. The “if” portion of that statement is a recent development.

There are two ironies to the story of this particular building. The first, as pointed out in the article, is that the facade alterations of the 1920s more or less make it impossible for this historic building – over 160 years old and designed by James Renwick – to receive the protection of a landmarks designation. The second, is that its current appearance – an off-color stucco with badly-proportioned ornament – may well be improved upon as part of its renovation.

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