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Landmarks Nixes Tammany Hall's Glass Tortoise Shell Topper

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The landmarked Tammany Hall on Union Square will likely see some changes, but not the tortoise shell-like addition revealed earlier this month. On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission denied the proposal from BKSK Architects, which called for the removal of the slate mansard roof and reconfiguration of the upper floors to add what was billed as a glass dome. The reconfigured fourth through sixth floors would be for a single tenant and would allow a person on each of the upper floors to see down to the floors below. The proposal also would remove the theater, restore the facades, replace signage, create new entrances on 17th Street, and remove plaques from the eastern end of the 17th Street side of the building to replace them with windows.

The "dome," which was to echo a tortoise seen under Native American Chief Tamanend, the namesake of Tammany Hall, in a statue, would have been made of steel, aluminum, and insulated acoustic glass. The glass would have been set back 18 feet, but the top would have come back out five feet from that (13 feet). It would have supported itself, and it would feature fins upon which window washers could attach. Todd Poisson, a Partner at BKSK and lead architect for the project, said it would not reflect undue light onto neighboring buildings during the day and would not be overly glowing at night. BKSK's Harry Kendall pointed to the Pantheon in Rome as the chief inspiration for their design, but also noted many other domed structures, both original and modified, including the University of Virginia and the Reichstag. He described this proposal as "quietly modern."

The building, located at 44-48 Union Square East and 100-102 East 17th Street, was completed in 1929 by architect Charles B. Meyers. It replaced the old Tammany Hall building, which was on 14th Street and was completed in 1868. Elise Quasebarth of the preservation firm Higgins Quasebarth & Partners said the building has a "rich political and cultural history." It was sold in 1943 to a union, which owned it until 1984. Current owner Margaret Cotter said the building "needs improvement" and that the proposal would "highlight and advance [its] landmark qualities." Kendall described it as "worn" and said the current state of the building "conceals its architectural merit."

LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan described the proposal as "very intriguing," said the building "begs for enhancement," and said that it "may be appropriate" to enlarge it, but this design was "hard to grasp" and "not there." If it were to be enlarged, she suggested a slanted roof like Federal Hall or an actual dome. Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron loved the idea of restoration, but said the proposal "is not a dome" and questioned the stated inspirations. Commissioner John Gustafsson said the proposed roof was "dramatic." He, too, could allow an enlargement, but not this. Commissioner Michael Devonshire said the existing slate mansard roof could be maintained with a smaller dome and called this design "egregiously large." Commissioner Michael Goldblum called this a "very bold, ambitious proposal," but could not support it. Commissioner Roberta Washington was inclined to support it until she saw a model showing the proportions. Commissioner Christopher Moore, who said his mother was Lenape, on the other hand, liked the idea and how it would remind people of "Turtle Island," a term with various meanings for the northeastern tribes.

Community Board 5 opposed the proposal, as did the Historic Districts Council. "HDC finds the proposal before the Commission today to be gratuitous both for the lack of an apparent functional justification for the addition, and for the extremity of this stylistic gesture, which is a major departure from the building's architectural language," HDC's Barbara Zay said. Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City said it seemed to "crash land on the roof like a spaceship from Mars." Alex Herrera of the New York Landmarks Conservancy also expressed his opposition.

In his objection, Jack Taylor, speaking for the Union Square Community Coalition, took issue with the fact that the building's landmark designation report says the "slate-covered hipped attic roof is largely screened from view by a brick and stone balustrade." He said it's clearly visible, and commissioner Devonshire agreed.

Peter Benjaminson's objection was a bit out there. He wants the building turned into a museum and memorial to political corruption. Less than a handful of speakers delivered their support, one "enthusiastically." One of the supporters was Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership. In the end, the applicant was asked to explore other ways of expanding the building and return to the LPC.

—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· All Tammany Hall coverage [Curbed]
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]