By Alissa Fleck
Tears were literally shed by community members at a recent hearing about the future of the NoHo Historic District’s 19th century Merchant’s House, as they spoke fondly of the home’s significance.
Several groups including the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), the Historic Districts Council and members and volunteers with the Merchant’s House Museum gathered before a Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) hearing Tuesday, Sept. 11, in support of the Merchant’s House.
Developers are approaching the LPC asking to build a nine-story hotel right next to the historic home and museum. The construction involves tearing down a 1945 one-story garage between Lafayette and Bowery. The GVSHP, Parks Department and other groups worry construction will undermine the home’s foundation and have other negative impacts on its structure. Advocates for the home also believe the hotel would be aesthetically out of character with its low-rise surroundings.
According to Judy Nash and Tony Onorato, members of the Merchant’s House museum who have lived in Brooklyn their entire lives, the 1832 home is the oldest untouched house in New York City, with everything left “exactly as it was.” The house maintains all its original 19th century furnishings, explained the couple.
“We’re here because it’s so important for this house to survive,” said Nash. Much too much of the city is gone because of reckless decisions.”
“If even the smallest detail is compromised, it’s a loss to all of us,” added Onorato.
Rosalind Gnatt, a professional soprano singer, has donated 10 years of service to the museum as a part of the Bond Street Euterpean Singing Society. The group regularly performs 19th century parlor music concerts in the home.
“The city deemed [the home] important enough to pour tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money into its preservation,” said Gnatt. “It’s not just a historic landmark, it’s a unique historic landmark.”
Diane Jackier, chief of staff of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, testified at the hearing that the home was landmarked in 1965 by the Landmark Commission, and was among the first designations.
Project designers, developers and structural engineers laid out their plan to monitor the Merchant’s House throughout construction to avoid any damage to the museum, but many expressed concern these measures were not adequate.
Community members in support of the Merchant’s House pointed out the house had already closed for over two years in the past due to structural damage resulting from nearby construction. They demanded certain protective measures be put in place prior to building, including a height limit on the hotel ranging from two to four stories and an agreement by developers to pay for any damage in addition to various proactive measures.
Sen. Tom Duane and Councilwoman Rosie Mendez also submitted testimony in support of the home, calling for certain preventive steps like vibration monitoring devices and geotechnical and catastrophe planning.
Pi Gardiner, executive director of the Merchant’s House museum, called the house a “miracle of survival” and asked the commission to deny the application outright. Gardiner said after thousands of hours spent in the home, she knew firsthand of its fragility.
In agreement with Gardiner’s assessment, the chair of the Board of Directors at the house, Nick Nicholson, reiterated a point he had made in the past: “It’s not a question of if [the house] will suffer damage, it’s how much.”
Doris Diether, well-known community activist and co-chair of Landmarks Committee with Community Board 2, teared up as she took to the podium to provide testimony.
“The Merchant’s House is a federal, state and city landmark inside and out,” said Diether. “How much more damage can this precious landmark endure?”
The LPC has left the record open, meaning community members are still able to submit testimony. The commission will convene again to discuss the construction plan at a future public meeting.
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