BY THE VILLAGE SUN | In a move that advocates say will surely imperil Manhattan’s first landmarked building, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday approved construction of a new building next door to the fragile Merchant’s House Museum.
Crestfallen museum officials warn the adjacent, seven-story project “is guaranteed to cause irreparable, and possibly catastrophic, structural damage to our 1832 landmark building.” The new building is reportedly planned as residential, though previously was slated to be a hotel.
In a statement after the decision, the museum directors declared that the vote would be “a permanent stain on the commission” — and that their next step would be a lawsuit.
“The Merchant’s House Museum will take aggressive legal action to halt this unacceptable development.”
The struggle to protect Noho’s meticulously preserved 1800s home-turned-museum from next-door development to its west has gone on for 12 years. Currently, the abutting lot is occupied by a one-story garage.
(To the east of the museum is the new Manuel Plaza park, which was constructed above a Department of Environmental Protection water shaft connecting to a City Water Tunnel No. 3.)
Three years ago, L.P.C. declined to vote on the proposed development, instead ordering the engineers for both the museum and the developer to work together to create a plan to protect the museum in the event of construction.
The museum received the developer’s new plans only a week ago. On Tuesday, an L.P.C. consultant reviewed the plans and answered commissioners’ questions — but did not allow museum officials, the museum’s engineer or members of the public to speak.
Local politicians on Dec. 7 wrote a letter to L.P.C. Chairperson Sarah Carroll, stressing the importance of protecting the nearly 200-year-old building and also requesting an additional week for the new plan to be reviewed.
The Merchant’s House is an important treasure in our community and every precaution should be taken to ensure it’s protected. I sent a letter with colleagues to ensure LPC is taking the appropriate steps to preserve this landmark. pic.twitter.com/SJxgH1XOin
— NYC Council Member Carlina Rivera (@CMCarlinaRivera) December 8, 2023
Meanwhile, as Merchant’s House officials and preservation advocates, including Village Preservation, note with alarm, the number of landmarked buildings that have recently been demolished or endangered on “The City of Yes”‘s watch is of mounting concern. One of the most egregious examples occurred this past February, when damage caused by nearby construction within the Greenwich Village Historic District forced the evacuation of the landmarked 10 Fifth Ave., at the corner of Eighth Street. The building remains vacant to this day.
In the latest avoidable calamity, just a couple of weeks ago, 30 residents at E. 14th Street and Avenue C were ordered to vacate their homes after next-door construction for a planned 24-story tower destabilized their 123-year-old building.
According to the Merchant’s House, the adjacent construction on E. Fourth Street will force the museum to close to the public for at least two years to safeguard the museum and its collection — at a cost of $5 million. There is particular concern about the museum’s fragile, original 1832 interior plasterwork, which museum officials fear could crumble under the vibrations from next-door construction.
The Merchant’s House headlined its statement on the L.P.C. decision: “A Stunning Betrayal by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”
“We write with the difficult news that the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted today to approve the development next door to the Merchant’s House, at 27 East 4th Street,” the statement read. “The L.P.C. voted to approve in spite of overwhelming and unanimous opposition from the community, preservation organizations, public officials and, of course, from the Merchant’s House and our engineers and preservation architects.
“At the meeting, when asked, the developer’s engineers admitted that they have no data about what standards are appropriate when dealing with historic, decorative plaster. Indeed, neither the developer’s professionals nor the L.P.C.’s consultant was even aware of the type of plaster used at the Merchant’s House.
“Further, none of the participants today was aware of the plaster study that confirmed irreparable damage will take place. Nonetheless, unbelievably, the L.P.C. still decided that the excavation and construction work next door — just inches away from the Merchant’s House — would not damage our plaster.
“The L.P.C. mandated that certain standards relating to vibration monitoring be established. However, as preservation architect and former [Landmarks Preservation] Commissioner Michael Devonshire has observed, even the most state-of-the-art vibration monitoring systems only announce when the vibration limit has been reached — at which point, the damage has already occurred.
“Today’s vote by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to greenlight a development that is certain to cause irreparable damage to the Merchant’s House Museum is a warning to every other landmark in New York City. If the Merchant’s House, one of New York City’s most treasured historical assets, can be subjected to adjacent construction that will destroy its historic fabric, then every landmark in New York City is at risk.
“This decision, even if reversed,” the museum statement said, “will be a permanent stain on the commission, which has failed in its existential duty to protect Manhattan’s first and New York City’s oldest residential landmark.”
Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, warned that the treasured structure must not become “the next victim” of lapsed governmental oversight.
“We’re deeply disappointed that the L.P.C. approved this application without giving the public an opportunity to review and respond to the latest submission, and seemingly without the commission fully understanding or acknowledging the depth of the potential damage to be done to the Merchant’s House, as documented by their experts,” the preservationist said. “The Merchant’s House is not only one of New York City’s most important landmarks — it’s a cultural and educational institution that serves the public and in which millions of dollars in public moneys have been invested. To risk all that seems remarkably shortsighted and foolish. We’ve seen an ever-increasing rash of vulnerable historic buildings in our city and neighborhood suffer serious damage from work next door. The Merchant’s House Museum must not be allowed to be the next victim of a system of failed governmental oversight.”