Preservationists Focus on a Little Brick House
Preservationists Focus on a Little Brick House
By SUZANNE ROZDEBA - New York Times, 2/18/2011
35 Cooper Square
Cooper Square was an unnamed but thriving business district about 1825 when a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, Nicholas William Stuyvesant, built what is now one of the oldest remaining Federal-style houses on the Bowery.
In its day, the house, now known as 35 Cooper Square, was nestled among three similar dormer-roof structures. Today it resembles a pink mushroom, propped up against the towering glass and steel sequoia that is the Cooper Square Hotel.
Perhaps not for long. Already scaffolding surrounds the building, and the black tiles of the roof are being torn away as the first step in making way for what preservationists suspect will be another hotel or high-rise condominiums. But not without a fight. In another of those classic New York struggles between the future and the past, steel and wood, high tech and quaint, forces have been lining up to protect 35 Cooper Square.
They have already lost one battle. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has declined to award landmark status to 35 Cooper Square. The commission’s staff decided that because of changes to the exterior of the house, it no longer maintained its original character, and any attempt to recover that historical character would destroy the building’s brickwork.
Those who want to preserve the building say that other Federal-style houses with greater alterations have received landmark designation. They also say the building is important not only because of its history but also because of those who lived there.
“We remake this city and forget there were ordinary people who made this city so interesting,” said Kerri Culhane, an architectural historian. “This house holds not just the history of famous people, but of the common man.”
In its day, 35 Cooper Square — then known as 391 Bowery — was part of a community of grocers, hatters and boot and shoe makers on the Bowery. Farther east and west of the bustling square, farmers still tended fields.
After the Stuyvesants moved on (Nicholas died in 1833), the building housed poets, artists, actors, saloons and storefronts.
And it became creative inspiration for figures like Diane di Prima, the Beat Generation “poet priestess,” who wrote in her autobiography, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, “When I first laid eyes on 35 Cooper Square, I knew it was the fulfillment of all those fantasies of art and the artist’s life. ... It was my dream house.”
Certainly, it has been a survivor; it predates even the imposing and historic Cooper Union building that anchors the teardrop-shaped square. But now it sits amid such ambitious and eye-catching modern architecture as the Cooper Square Hotel.
“This is a two-and-a-half story building in an area where the sky’s the limit,” Ms. Culhane said. “I can’t imagine the Cooper Square Hotel in 185 years still standing.”
She is working with the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, which is trying to save the building and is trying to have all of the Bowery listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ms. Culhane and Sally Young, a neighborhood resident who has been researching the building’s history, have been combing through records related to the house. But their research could not move the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Organizations like the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation also tried to persuade the commission to protect the building.
According to records, the Stuyvesants most likely rented the house first to John Wood and his wife, Mary or Maria, who lived there around 1825 and are buried in the Marble Cemetery in the East Village. Twenty-five years later, Henry Marshall ran a tavern there until about 1875.
In the 1940s, J. Forest Vey, an art student at Cooper Union, rented the upper floors from an unidentified landlord, the researchers found. Mr. Vey, a painter, and his wife, Marguerite, lived there until 1957. Their son Peter, an East Village cartoonist, was born while they lived there, in 1955. J. Forest Vey rented the upstairs dormer rooms for $5 a week to the actor Joel Grey. Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land, also lived there. But when the owner offered to sell him the building for $5,000 in the 1950s, Mr. Vey thought the price was too high, and the family moved out.
In 1962, Ms. di Prima and her husband, Alan Marlowe, were living there with her children, Jeanne and Dominique, and their son Alexander. It was there that she wrote a prose work, The Calculus of Variation, and many poems. From the house, she ran the New York Poets Theatre and Poets Press, and wrote Floating Bear, a well-read newsletter.
The couple entertained the Beat poet William Burroughs, the jazz musician Cecil Taylor and the poet Frank O’Hara and gave refuge to artists like Billy Name, Andy Warhol’s photographer. Stanley Sobossek, an artist, opened a bar there around 1970 and lived upstairs.
The last resident was Hisae Vilca, who ran a restaurant in the building from 1976 called Hisae’s Place, and in the mid 2000s opened the Cooper 35 Asian Pub while living on the top floor. A friend, Carol Puttre, said: “She had artists meeting there and loved that place. When she had to move out at the end of January, she was heartbroken.”
In October, a developer, Arun Bhatia, bought the property with Cooper and 6th Property LLC for $8.5 million from an insurance company. “They’re pursuing their rights to develop the property,” said Jane Crotty, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bhatia.
Ms. Crotty said there were no definitive plans for what would replace the old house, but scaffolding went up on Feb. 4, and workers began hacking away at the roof on Feb. 12 to remove asbestos. A demolition permit was approved on Feb. 14, though on the same day a stop-work order was issued because of a broken fence at the back of the site, and inspectors found two violations, for failing to publicly display a work permit and failing to properly protect the public and nearby property.
The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, led by its chairman, David Mulkins, held a rally on Jan. 28 in front of 35 Cooper and gathered more than 1,000 signatures asking the landmarks commission to protect the building. But the issue is now in the hands of the city buildings department, which can revoke the demolition permit only if it finds that there was misrepresentation. Mr. Mulkins said the organization had not discussed whether to go to court to try to save the building.
Kent Barwick, a preservationist and a former Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman, who supports saving the building, said: “35 Cooper is one of the few links between the world that has come and gone along the Bowery. It’s important to have a reminder of the Bowery when it was emerging from Dutch farmland to become a lively and intellectual center.”