The building that houses the Strand Bookstore at 826 Broadway was designated as a New York City landmark on Tuesday morning, following a contested process and fierce opposition from community members and the bookstore’s owner.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted to landmark the Strand’s building, along with six other nearby buildings: 817, 830, 832, 836, 840, and 841 Broadway.
The building’s designation comes after two public hearings—one in December 2018 and another one in February this year—and several written submissions to the LPC, as well as a petition filed by those opposing the designation.
The LPC’s interest in landmarking the building, which was designed by William H. Birkmore and first opened in 1902, stemmed from its architectural significance as a Renaissance Revival structure. The building is associated with the garment industry in the early 20th century, and has housed the Strand since 1956 (the bookstore is the building’s longest occupant, per the LPC). The Strand bought the 11-story building in 1996.
“It’s a historic institution that reflects the era of book row, the center of book-selling—I’m confident that the commission’s review of the masterplan and any future applications will provide [the] flexibility the Strand needs to remain nimble and innovative and to continue its important place in New York City, and adapt to a changing retail climate,” Sarah Carroll, LPC chairwoman, said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Prior to the vote, the lawyer representing the bookstore’s owner, Alexander Urbelis, asked to address the commission. He said that there were more than 11,000 signatures in the petition and not 6,600 as LPC staff members pointed out in a presentation during the meeting.
“May your conscience guide you to consider the real world consequences of landmarking a beloved bookstore like the Strand,” Urbelis said. “May your conscience dissuade you from taking part in the downfall of New York’s greatest and most beloved bookstore.”
Following Urbelis’s statement, commissioners expressed disappointment about the bookstore’s opposition campaign.
“In this case—and especially the testimony of people who are otherwise advocates of our process and of this entire enterprise—I think that their opposition is actually an expression of an intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy,” LPC commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said.
Commissioner John Gustafsson addressed concerns that the designation would place a burden on the 92-year-old bookstore and its owner.
“We can’t control things like rental value, but we can be reasonable in our demands on any building that we designate,” Gustafsson said. “There are two ways to lose a building: One is for us to fail to designate, and see a building disappear, but another way to do that is to designate and act unreasonably in our demands, we have lost very few buildings to the second cause.”
“What they [the LPC commissioners] fail to acknowledge is that there are real-world costs associated with landmarking: those costs can affect jobs, those costs can affect union jobs, and those costs can affect businesses like the Strand,” Urbelis told Curbed following the vote. “We need a life raft, we don’t need somebody to throw us a lead weight with a landmarking.”
Nancy Bass Wyden, the owner of the bookstore, slammed the LPC’s decision to landmark the building, calling it a “bureaucratic straight jacket”; she also questioned the case of St. Denis Hotel, a block away from the bookstore, which wasn’t landmarked and is now being demolished to be replaced with a 12-story office building.
“Landmarks has made it clear that they will take over all decision-making for this building,” Bass Wyden said at a press conference in front of the store following the vote. “Tonight, I’m going to try to figure out how to keep the Strand.”