Wednesday, December 05, 2007

NY'ers defend West Harlem against Columbia

NY'ers defend West Harlem against Columbia
By David Freedlander, amNewYork Staff Writer
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December 5, 2007

Backers of Columbia University's planned expansion into West Harlem contend that the neighborhood is comprised of little more than low-slung auto body shops and abandoned buildings.Preservationists, however, say look closer and you¹ll see spectacular architecture that holds a living link to the city¹s past.

"A city is not just its museums or its cathedrals," said Michael Henry Adams, an architectural historian and author of "Harlem Lost and Found."
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"A lot of the buildings in the neighborhood had humble functions, but they¹re magnificent structures and the architects wanted them to express the idea that even though they had utilitarian functions, they are part of the great metropolis of New York," he said.

Columbia has enlisted the famed Italian architect Renzo Piano to design its new Manhattanville campus in a plan that residents fear will wipe out evidence of the city's evolution. A rezoning of the area to allow for the expansion already passed the city¹s Planning Commission. The 17-acre site is slated for research labs and student housing.

Some of the properties Columbia already owns and has used for decades. And though the university said it has no plans to tear those down, it has resisted seeking landmark designation, which would provide legal protection.Other buildings have been rejected for landmarking by the city¹s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Columbia University did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

"They are making assurances but they are just assurances of the moment," said Eric K. Washington, an area resident and author of 'Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem.' "The person making them might be very sincere but what happens when there is a new administration or a change of mind down the road. Having them landmarked would prevent them from doing what they want with them.

"Manhattanville was once the name of a separate village across the way from the village of Haarlem on the Harlem River. In 1609 Henry Hudson stopped there, trading with the Indians who, "brought a very great store of very good oysters aboard, which we bought for trifles."

In time, the neighborhood became a meatpacking center and later, with the advent of the subway, milk pasteurization and bottling plants sprang up in the area at a time when half of all of the city's children died from spoiled milk. When cars started to replace horse drawn carriages, the area became a center of automobile assembly.

All three industries left behind a magnificent architectural heritage.

"Manufacturers used to take great pride in the buildings," said Mary Habstritt, president of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, which advocates for the preservation of artifacts from America¹s industrial past. "Now we consider them more temporary but companies used to feel that their buildings made a statement about the company."

Opponents of the plan are focusing their efforts on the City Council, which is slated to consider rezoning the neighborhood next month."If we don't retain the older parts of the city we tend to forget our heritage," said Walter South, a 20-year Manhattanville resident. "You don't come in with a white blanket and obliterate everything in the neighborhood."

Worth saving?

Prentis Hall:
A 1909 former milk pasteurization and bottling plant built in response to food safety advocates¹ cry for cleaner milk process. The white terra cotta face is designed to convey a sense of purity, and big ground floor windows let the curious observe the pasteurization process. Currently houses Columbia art and music studios.

12th Ave Track Beds:
When the historian Eric K. Washington first noticed this sign saying 3rd Avenue by these tracks on 12th Ave, ³I thought I had just wondered off to the East Side in some kind of daydream.² Turns out these tracks date to 1885 when the privately owned 3rd Ave Railway Company built an experimental cross town cable car line.

Studebaker Building:
This striking 1920¹s art deco building was a distribution point and light manufacturing center for the now-defunct car company. The building features a white terra cotta crown and alternating black and red brickwork and has seals across the top that still bear the car company logo. Columbia has renovated it and is planning to keep administrative offices there.

Sheffield Farms Stable:
This 1903 building housed horses back when they would deliver milk door to door in wagons. Built with white brick in the Second Empire style, it features and a mansard roof and placard medallions of stylized horses tales. The building is in the national and state register of historic places. The Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected naming it a land marked though, and its owner has fiercely resisted selling to Columbia.

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