Plans by a developer to gut a landmarked clock that sits atop a historic Tribeca building were dealt a setback in State Supreme Court last week, when a ruling found that legal protections to both the inside and the outside of the structure cannot be waived by City regulators.
The structure in question is the 1898 Renaissance Revival building located at 346 Broadway (also known as 108 Leonard Street), which was designed by the acclaimed architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White as the headquarters for the New York Life Insurance Company.
It became a City office building in the 1960s, and earned landmark status in 1987. In 2013, the 400,000-square-foot building was sold by the City for $160 million to Miami-based developers Peebles Corporation, which soon enlisted as a partner the Israel-based Elad Group, best known to New Yorkers as the owners (from 2004 through 2012) of the Plaza Hotel. The new owners quickly decided to convert the building into condominium apartments.
On the roof of 346 Broadway is a giant, mechanical clock — the largest of its kind in the United States, and one of few remaining specimens anywhere. A unique relic from an era when grand timepieces amounted to a civic statement, it is one of only two clocks in the world to feature a double, three-legged gravity escapement; a 14-foot long, two-second pendulum; and a 5000-pound bell. (The other is “Big Ben” in London’s Westminster Palace.) The building’s 1987 designation as a landmark cited it as a signal achievement of 19th-century American technology.
But the new owners of 346 Broadway decided in 2014 to convert the clock tower to a penthouse triplex. While this plan would have preserved the external visual appearance of the clock, making room for living space behind it would have required scrapping the gears and shafts that drive the clock’s hands, and replacing them with much more compact electrical motor. This elicited howls or protest from Lower Manhattan preservationists, but also raised eyebrows among those familiar with the law surrounding landmark protections. The reason for this skeptical view of the plan was that 346 Broadway has two kinds of landmark status: It’s exterior facade it legally protected (as is the case with most structures that are granted this stature), but it is also designated an “interior landmark,” meaning that alterations within the building require approval from City regulators. The building at 346 Broadway is one of only 117 structures anywhere in New York City that have been designated as interior landmarks. A crucial distinction in this context is that the law requires that interior landmarks be accessible to the public, and no such access would be possible once the space behind the clock became a private home.
For this reason, the developers appealed in 2014 to the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for a waiver to allow them to proceed with their plan. Preservationists were shocked when that body agreed in May, 2015 to allow the demolition to proceed. The next step was legal action, in which a coalition of plaintiffs — including the Tribeca Trust and the Historic Districts Council — sued the developer and the City, arguing that LPC had no legal authority, under the City’s existing preservation statutes, to grant such an exception.
In March, 2016, the plaintiffs won their case in its initial trial. Both the City and the developers quickly filed an appeal before the State Supreme Court. That body ruled on Thursday, upholding the trial court’s 2016 verdict in favor of the preservationists. A three-judge majority on the five member panel that heard the case called the LPC’s original decision, “irrational” and “based on an error of law.”
The legal fight to protect the clock at 346 Broadway may not be over, however. The City and the developers are believed to be considering a further appeal, this time to the highest court in New York State, the Court of Appeals.
In the interim, preservationists still have one unfulfilled goal with regard to 346 Broadway, and it involves a bronze globe that once adorned the top of the building’s clock tower. The sculpture, by artist Philip Martiny (who also created the magnificent bronze doors at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue, and decorative pieces for the Library of Congress) consisted of a hollow latticed sphere, 15 feet in diameter, surrounding a solid orb (seven feet across), surmounted by an eagle, seven feet tall, with its wings spread. All of this splendor was supported by four crouching figures of Atlas.
The globe disappeared from the roof of 346 Broadway sometime in the 1940s, and in the decades since its fate has become an obsession for preservationists. Because there is little chance of tracking it down, Community Board 1 (CB1) has requested that the developers who are converting 346 Broadway into a condominium do the next best thing: recreate it. A resolution passed by CB1 in March, 2016, “asks the applicant to work diligently and thoughtfully with the Department of Buildings to find a zoning solution for recreating the long-removed globe finial above the clock tower.”