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Safe Harbor

Commercial buildings in New York City’s financial district are converted to residences.

Project: Historic Front Street apartment/retail block, New York, NY

Client: Yarrow LLC, New York, NY

Architects: Cook+Fox Architects, New York, NY

Engineers: Robert Silman Associates PC, New York, NY; Laszlo Bodak Engineer, PC, New York, NY

Preservation Consultants: Mary B. Dierickx, New York, NY; Higgins & Quasebarth, New York, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

Every building type and architectural style ever known in New York is now being turned into apartments. Hospitals, hotels, churches, clubs, warehouses, offices, factories, whether Moorish or Moderne – not since the urban pioneers’ loft and nightclub conversion craze of the 1970s and ‘80s has so much resourceful architectural thinking gone into so many quirky reuses.

The Wall Street area has proven especially fertile ground for the adaptations. The New York Times has dubbed it "the fastest growing residential neighborhood in New York City." Its population has nearly quadrupled since 1999 and now numbers 36,000. Residents are drawn to the relatively low housing prices, easy transit connections and weekend quiet; developers, meanwhile, are feasting on government incentives – loans and tax breaks – meant to foster post-9/11 recovery.

So far, the most widely lauded makeover in the Financial District is called Historic Front Street. If you’d dared to stroll this cobblestone block near the South Street Seaport Museum as recently as 2003, you’d have scuttled past boarded-up brick façades. Now you’ll find apartment dwellers pushing baby strollers, dropping off dry cleaning, walking dogs or lingering at sidewalk cafes, and you could easily imagine yourself just off a canal in Amsterdam or Venice. New York City-based Cook+Fox Architects has re-imagined 11 old buildings and inserted three new apartment houses, all in homage to maritime history.

The original structures – mostly built between the 1790s and the Civil War – once contained chandleries, counting-houses, gambling halls and boarding houses to serve port traffic. Herman Melville grew up nearby, and Moby-Dick opens with Ishmael’s description of the neighborhood "under the shady lee of yonder warehouses." By the 1970s, the port was dying, and much of Front Street between Beekman Street and Peck Slip had ended up defaulted in city hands. A block away, the Fulton Fish Market managed to survive until 2005, but its nighttime truck noise and all-day stench kept scaring away developers. The city fielded proposal after proposal for the Front Street stretch, but no one came up with feasible plans or enough cash. In 2003, as the city geared up to move the fish market to the Bronx, Yarrow LLC (a partnership of three Manhattan real estate powerhouses: Sciame Development, the Durst Organization and Zuberry Asso-ciates) paid $5 million for much of the Front Street block. Some brick shells were in such perilous shape that the buyers could not enter them before the closing.

Cook+Fox’s proposed designs sailed through the city’s notoriously thorny approvals process in late 2003. Government officials, in fact, publicly expressed gratitude for the project team’s respectful approach. A community-board member told The Times that the redevelopment scheme seemed "a labor of love, more than a labor for profit."

The architects have preserved 75,000 sq.ft. and added another 75,000 sq.ft., while creating 95 rental apartments and 14 retail spaces. Sheet-metal dentil cornices were patched or re-created in fiberglass. Cast-iron storefronts and brick façades were gently scrubbed and grout was injected into the masonry; it retains its patina and ghost signs for salmon and halibut, as well as venerable bends and bulges caused by settlement.

Restored or replaced turnbuckle stars and squares now grip the irregular brickwork. New or replicated lintels and window frames sag at angles approaching 45 degrees. The site is landfill, made of stones packed into wood cribbing. Early-19th-century Manhattanites continually fattened the island here and straightened its coastline. "Geologically, this block is still the East River," explains Richard Cook, firm principal. "The tide continues to rise and fall under this area."

The interwoven new construction subtly honors the area’s long-vanished seafarers and fishmongers. On vacant lots where old buildings had fallen, Cook+Fox set tan-brick structures that are substantially shorter than the 120 ft. that zoning would have allowed. On the new façades, beam rivets are exposed and charcoal-colored bricks serve as corner quoins. Cables for glass awnings resemble ship rigging. New penthouses have saw-tooth profiles, evoking vernacular warehouse architecture, and one rounded penthouse wing is clad in zinc like a prow. One top-floor dormer, shaped like a "V," has been nicknamed "the whale tail."

Window louvers and slats, made of ipé, look like the cribbing in the landfill below; the untreated ipé is now weathering to a driftwood-gray. Stone plaques have been carved with Melville quotes, including Ishmael’s portrayal of restless, pining locals: "thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries."

During construction, scores of maritime and industrial artifacts were uncovered, which the architects have incorporated into the décor. Iron fragments of elevator hoists have been posted like abstract sculptures around bluestone-paved courtyards. Interior brick walls were left exposed after a thorough ground-cornhusk cleaning, as were vintage joists, iron columns with leafy capitals and iron storage vaults with egg-and-dart trim.

No two apartments are alike. The tenants also enjoy access to a variety of rooftop gardens with Brooklyn Bridge views. Noise from roof-top compressors doesn’t spoil the sunbathers’ peace, because the mechanicals rely instead on 10 geothermal wells sunk 1,500 ft. through Manhattan schist.

Within months of the project’s summer 2005 unveiling, the apartments were fully occupied. They range from studios to two bedrooms, at rates of $2,300 to $8,500 per month (there are also five $1,600-per-month units, reserved for moderate-income tenants). The retail spaces are mainly attracting restaurateurs; the cuisine so far spans from sushi to extra-thin egg pasta, New Zealand barbecue and a high-octane potion called "stir-brew coffee."

Preservation groups – The Municipal Art Society of New York, American Institute of Architects, New York Landmarks Conservancy, Congress for the New Urbanism and Preservation League of New York State – have showered the project with awards. "And a lot of architects have moved in here, which we take as an especially great compliment," says Cook+Fox architect Kristen Johnson. "People love the quirkiness and the character of the spaces. They don’t even mind that the floors aren’t quite level. One tenant told us that he has dining chairs on wheels, and they keep slowly rolling away from the table." 

 

 

 
 

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