On Tuesday, the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) reversed itself and rescinded a package of proposed rule changes to its approval process that would have removed from public review several categories of modifications to legally protected historic structures. Among these changes was one that would have had a significant impact on Lower Manhattan: a plan to empower the LPC’s staff to approve the alteration or demolition of the glass “bulbed” sidewalks (also known as “vault lights”) that are found in streetscapes throughout Tribeca.
The front of a building on Walker Street, containing vault lights in the sidewalk
As the Historic Districts Council (HDC) — a non-profit that advocates for the preservation of significant historic neighborhoods, buildings and public spaces throughout New York City — noted in an analysis published in March, “vault lights are a defining feature of former manufacturing districts like SoHo and Tribeca, providing evidence that these districts were once industrial powerhouses, as opposed to the domain of wealthy property owners, shoppers and tourists that we see today. This rule change states that the staff will approve the removal of up to two panels of exposed vault lights that are deteriorated beyond repair if no other vault lights exist on the same side of the block. They may be replaced with diamond plate steel or concrete/granite to match the adjacent sidewalk. For covered vault lights that are deteriorated beyond repair, applicants would now be given the choice to replace them with new vault lights or remove them altogether.”
The HDC continued, “this would remove all incentive for applicants to replicate this historic detail. Further, given the cost differential between vault lights and diamond plate steel, the public would now have to rely only on the owner’s discretion to safeguard this feature. HDC believes this should fall within the mission of this public agency.”
On April 24, Community Board 1 enacted a resolution announcing that it was, “strongly opposed to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s proposed rulemaking that would remove most reviews from the public process and resolve them at the level of staff review,” listing the possible lost of vault lights as one reason why.
A late-1800s illustration of how vault lights illuminated an underground chamber
Vault lights were invented in 1854 by Thaddeus Hyatt, who patented a scheme for installing dozens of small glass lenses within a wrought-iron frame, laid into the sidewalk. In the decades before electricity, this provided a way to direct sunlight into the basement level of a building, making it useable as workspace during daytime hours.
In the decades after the Civil War, as the area of Lower Manhattan now known as Tribeca became crowded with factories, Hyatt’s invention came to adorn the sidewalks in front of more than 100 buildings. Dozens of these remain in place today, although sometimes in states of serious disrepair. But, as with other relics of the neighborhood’s industrial past, such as metal canopies and loading docks, vault lights have evolved into cherished symbols of local history.
When, earlier this year, the LDC proposed changing its rules so that the agency’s staff could approve applications from developers to destroy these features, community leaders, elected officials, and preservationists responded with a storm of criticism that continued for months.
This was likely the cause of the sudden resignation, announced in April, of LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, who has chaired the agency since 2014. Her last day at the Commission was Friday. Three days earlier, in a public hearing, the LPC voted to cancel the previously approved overhaul to its approval process.