CB1 Opposes Alterations to Landmarked Telephone Building in Tribeca
The owners of the historic (and legally protected) AT&T Long Lines Building at 32 Sixth Avenue hope to alter the structure’s facade to facilitate more exterior retail space, but Community Board 1 (CB1) wants to send the proposal straight to voicemail.
The Long Lines Building, which occupies a full block in northern Tribeca bounded by Sixth Avenue and Walker, Lispenard, and Church Streets, is one of a triumvirate of Art Deco masterpieces in Lower Manhattan created by architect Ralph Walker, all for communications firms in the first half of the 20th century. (The others are the New York Telephone Company Building at 140 West Street, and the Western Union Building at 60 Hudson Street.)
Completed in 1932, the structure once housed thousands of junctions for every central line operated by the Bell System in the northeastern United States, and handled a large percentage of all long-distance calls placed within America, as well as those made to or from foreign nations. In the decades when such connections were routed manually, by operators inserting plugs into switchboards, the Long Lines Building hosted up to 5,000 employees of AT&T, 24 hours per day. This technology was eventually automated and miniaturized, and AT&T was broken up by anti-trust regulators in the early 1980s. The building at 32 Sixth Avenue was sold to the Rudins, a New York real estate family, in 1999. By that point, it was mostly empty.
The new owners repositioned the building as what was, in the early years of the internet, coming to be called a “telco hotel,” a large facility that could house the digital infrastructure needed to enable connectivity for hundreds of thousands of individual computers.
Now, the owners want to update the building’s exterior at street level to a 21st-century aesthetic. Walker’s original design contained relatively few windows and doors at ground level, because AT&T’s needs for physical security and climate control were better served by uninterrupted brick walls (detail at right). This scheme would be modified under the Rudin proposal, which aims to enlarge existing windows, while also creating new ones. The plan would puncture the facade with new entrances and extend the building’s footprint by enclosing 640 square feet of sidewalk space, at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Lispenard Street, within a new pavilion.
At CB1’s October 24 meeting, Board member Bruce Ehrmann said, “there’s plenty of access into that building from both sides. They’ve already intervened with a Starbucks, and opened up the corner with glass. That building needs no further ruination.”
CB1 member Alice Blank (who is an architect) raised concerns about another aspect of the plan that would add new roll-down gates in the loading dock, saying, “this is not something that the community would be in favor of.”
A resolution enacted at the October 24 meeting notes that “CB1 feels the quantity [and] breadth of these changes would substantially modify [the building] in an overwhelming and overbearing manner,” and observes that, “making gigantic masonry openings in the original brickwork… contradicts any reasonable preservation purpose.”
“Carving away original masonry exterior walls to help the landlord install more storefront windows… is inappropriate at this scale, especially considering the landmark status of this building,” the measure continues, adding that under the Rudin plan, “the ground floor… will be stripped of Walker’s fortress-like design characteristics which continue around the base and up the building.”
The resolution concludes by urging the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission—which must approve any changes to landmarked structures, and has final say over CB1’s advisory opinion—to reject the proposal.