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Glassy Soho Retail Building Is 'Beautiful' But Needs Context

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Fashion company investor Ralph Bartel's dream of a four-story glass retail building on a currently vacant Soho lot moved closer to reality this week, as the proposal for 144 Spring Street was presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. On hand to open the presentation was Ward Dennis of the preservation firm Higgins Quasebarth & Partners. He touted the design's self-supporting laminated glass and spoke of how, over time, buildings have used more glass and less structure. He said it would be a building "of its time"; it would be a 21st century building using 21st century technology, which doesn't sound like something the LPC would be into, but they actually liked it.

Architect Frank Grauman, of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, gave in-depth presentation about the building's design, pointing out that the site, located at the corner of Wooster Street, presents an "extraordinary problem" because it is smaller than your average city lot at only about 20 feet by 8 feet. The planned retail building has 2,800 square feet over the four levels (two floors and two mezzanines), and Grauman said the challenge was figuring out how to draw people upwards. One solution: a glass-enclosed elevator. He noted that the second floor would actually be suspended from the roof by rods, and the floor heights would range from 10 to 16 feet, with the first floor being the tallest. References were made to 101 Spring Street, the former home and studio of Donald Judd, as well as Soho's Apple store—two buildings that look nothing like the proposal for 144 Spring.

The Historic Districts Council issued a statement, and while they weren't thrilled, they also weren't absolutely against the proposal. "As the applicant points out in the presentation, there are a number of modern buildings approved by the Commission in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. Unlike the proposed new building, however, these other structures incorporate some amount of masonry and bay rhythm to recall the texture of this district's industrial architecture. The use of solid panes of glass for this very visible corner building represents a departure from the neighborhood's characteristic forms, thus drawing much attention to itself," HDC's Barbara Zay said. "HDC asks that the applicant work further on the details of the proposed design so that the building blends better with its context."

Dennis countered that the proposed building would have a lot of texture because of what would be happening inside the glass. Hm.

LPC commissioners felt similarly to HDC; they praised parts of the design, but ultimately want something that is more contextual with the neighborhood. Fred Bland noted that the glass was a "natural conclusion" and that the context was "sophisticated and artful." He said that if they "tinker with this" it will be at their "own peril," and he even suggested that they investigate the possibility of landmarking the currently nonexistent building's interior.

Michael Goldblum said that Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's record breeds trust. He called the proposal a "beautiful object," but added that it could be "a better fit for the district." He said it could use more scale and texture, noting that the building is far more effective on Wooster Street than Spring Street. Others praised the building for its "structural transparency," called it "unexpected" and "handsome." LPC Chairman Robert Tierney said it "makes the case" and is a "fine building."

The commissioners really liked the proposal, but most of those who spoke also said that more could be done to give the building extra character and integration with the neighborhood. So, the design team will work with the LPC staff and present a new proposal at a future date. Given how well today went, it is highly likely that when they return to the LPC, they'll win approval. As for who would occupy this space if and when it is built, Dennis believed it would be a fashion retailer, but really had no specifics as no decision has actually been made.
—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.
· Glassy Retail Space Headed for Spring Street Lot [Racked NY]
· All Landmarks Preservation Commission coverage [Curbed]