Community Board 1 (CB1) has agreed to support modifications to a historic building requested by the developer who is converting it into condominiums, but in exchange wants two legacy features of the structure restored.
The 1898 Renaissance Revival building, located at 346 Broadway (also known as 108 Leonard Street), was designed by the acclaimed architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, as the headquarters for the New York Life Insurance Company.
|An early 20th Century view of 346 Broadway, with both the clock tower and the globe sculpture, now missing, visible.|
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 as the owners (from 2004 through 2012) of the Plaza Hotel.
As Roger Byrom, chair of CB1’s Landmarks Committee explained at the board’s March 22 meeting, the developers plan, “to make some very chichi restaurant,” in the grand interior space known as the Banking Hall.
He added that John Beyer, a partner in the architectural firm of Beyer Blinder Belle (which specializes in historic preservation, and led the rehabilitation of Grand Central Terminal in the 1990s and 2000s), “did a wonderful job of persuading us about changes to the staircase,” which the developers want to move to the inside of the Banking Hall, while installing an elevator in the former location of the stairwell.
“But we also took the opportunity to say, ‘okay John, we’ll give you your staircase, but we want the clock tower working and we want the globe reinstalled,'” Mr. Byrom added, to applause from the audience. This was a reference to a pair of features that McKim, Mead, and White designed for the building’s crown. One of these is a sentimental favorite of people living in Lower Manhattan today. The other is vaguely remembered by their grandparents.
The clock is a unique relic from an era when grand timepieces amounted to a civic statement. The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 1987 designation cited it as a signal achievement of 19th-century American technology. 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 Houses of Parliament.)
|A vintage photo of the Banking Hall within 346 Broadway, in which the new owners hope to house an upscale restaurant, as they convert the rest of the building to condominium apartments. Note the staircase at rear, which the developers hope to move to the interior of the space.|
Since taking over the building in 2013, the new owners have subjected the chronometer to something like benign neglect: They have refused to allow it to be serviced by the clock master who kept it running for decades, and have announced plans to remove the clock’s mechanical apparatus, replace it with an electric motor, and convert the clock tower itself into a private, penthouse apartment. (This has prompted a lawsuit by a coalition of public-interest groups, including the Tribeca Trust.)
|A rendering of what the Banking Hall at 346 Broadway will look like, after it has been converted to a restaurant and the staircase has been moved from its former location.|
The globe that Mr. Byrom referred to was a 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. It 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, all of them 11 feet tall.
The globe disappeared from the roof of 346 Broadway (where it sat directly above the clock tower) sometime in the 1940s, and in the decades since its fate has become an obsession for preservationists who wish for second lives as private detectives. Because there is little chance of tracking it down, CB1 wants the building’s new owners to recreate it.
The resolution that Mr. Byrom introduced at the March 22 meeting, “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 as mentioned in the Certificate of Appropriateness.” It also proposes that, “the landmark and development mandates to keep the historic clock working,” noting that “the clock needs to be wound manually every two weeks and has been maintained at least since the 1970’s by the same clock master.” With these caveats, the resolution also says, “CB1 recommends that the Landmarks Preservation Commission approve the proposed stair relocation.” Following Mr. Byrom’s presentation, the resolution passed CB1 unanimously.