A team of real-life superheroes is moving into Lower Manhattan. Doctors Without Borders, a non-profit organization that sends squads of healthcare providers and others with lifesaving skills into war zones, impoverished developing nations, and just about any other place where large numbers of innocent people are facing immediate danger of preventable death, is relocating its New York office from midtown to 40 Rector Street.
Each year, the organization — guided by its motto: “Aid where it is needed most. Independent. Neutral. Impartial.” — sends more than 30,000 volunteer doctors, nurses, water and sanitation specialists, engineers, and administrators to more than 70 countries where armed conflict, natural and man-made disasters, epidemics, or the unavailability of healthcare services have unleashed humanitarian crises.
The 1920 office building at 40 Rector Street has become a mecca for public-service organizations like Doctors Without Frontiers.
Doctors Without Borders has purchased the top two floors in the commercial condominium building at Rector and West Streets, where offices are owned by their occupants, rather than rented. This decision to buy space, rather than to continue renting, was driven in part by a provision in the tax code that allows nonprofit organizations to avoid paying real estate tax on office space they have purchased, but would be indirectly liable for in rented space. The new office will consist of space totaling more than 60,000 square feet, for which Doctors Without Borders paid approximately $41.3 million. The organization expects to move in during the second half of this year.
The move by Doctors Without Borders is part of an ongoing migration among public-service organizations to 40 Rector, which has included the China Institute, the Metropolitan College of New York, Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Grace Institute, and the Urban Justine Center — a legal services and advocacy organization serving New York’s poverty stricken and minority populations.
Originally called the Barrett Building (for the pioneering chemical company that was a leading manufacturer of roofing tar in the late 1800s, and was later absorbed into the Allied Chemical conglomerate), the often-overlooked 40 Rector was designed by the firm of Warren and Wetmore in 1920, which is better known for having created Grand Central Terminal seven years earlier. The firm was also famous in the Jazz Age for signature Manhattan structures such as the Crown Building, the New York Yacht Club and Steinway Hall.
The 17-story Renaissance Revival structure faced the Hudson River waterfront when it opened, but the subsequent development of Battery Park City, which is built on landfill (partially comprised of spoil excavated from the World Trade Center foundations) pushed the shoreline back by several hundred feet, starting in the late 1960s. In the 1970s and beyond, 40 Rector Street ceased to be a premium address and the building fell on hard times, becoming back office space for number of City agencies. It was further eclipsed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the wake of which, the Rector Street Pedestrian Bridge was built directly in front of it.
But that span was always intended to be temporary, and is now slated to be demolished when its permanent replacement, the West Thames Pedestrian Bridge, is completed in 2018. This, plus the influx of high-profile public service organizations, may mark a new renaissance for the building, which is eligible for both the State and National Registers of Historic Places, but is currently listed on neither.