Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery wants to restore the Weir Greenhouse at 750 Fifth Avenue and connect it to a new building that would serve as a visitors center at 749-750 Fifth Avenue. While the Landmarks Preservation Commission loved the restoration idea, they weren’t ready to approve the project as presented on Tuesday.
The original greenhouse was designed by Mercein Thomas and built in 1880. Alterations (additions) were made in 1895. Those additions were imperfect. Among those imperfections are non-matching cornices. At any rate, the entire site has fallen into undeniable disrepair.
So, Green-Wood Cemetery hired Page Crowley of Page Ayres Crowley Architects, LLC to restore the greenhouse, demolish the additions, and connect the greenhouse to a new three-story building, which would include offices, exhibition space, and a paper and archive conservation center. The greenhouse itself would serve as a gathering and exhibition space and could even host flower shows. All interior brick would be original and a historic fence would be re-created. Crowley said that if the members of the LPC left with nothing else, they should leave with the word “awesome.” The new building would be set back 20 feet from the greenhouse but would have connections to it, including a bridge over an excavated areaway.
The commissioners could easily see approving the restoration and demolition, but not the new building or the connections to it. Here’s where it gets complicated. The LPC heard this because the Weir Greenhouse is an individual landmark, but when landmarks are designated, generally speaking, it isn’t the structure that is designated, but a geographic lot. Some of the new building sits in the designated lot, which is why the LPC has jurisdiction over it.
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said called the greenhouse a “great building” and was very excited by the prospect of restoration, but questioned the design of the new building. Commissioner Diana Chapin was among those who questioned why the new connector bridge between the greenhouse and the new building was designed as an extension of the greenhouse, when it is not original. Crowley said it wasn’t, but perhaps the differences were too subtle. Chapin also wanted a better view of the greenhouse from 25th Street. Commissioner Frederick Bland called the restoration “wonderful” and the connector “okay,” but didn’t like the design of the new building. He said it crowded the greenhouse. Commissioner Michael Goldblum said the new building needs to connect with the greenhouse. Some commissioners brought up the idea of more glass in the new building. Goldblum said the areaway could be something great, but as proposed, he found it “arid” and “not much too look at.” So, the applicant will need to re-work the proposal and come back to the LPC.
Community Board 7 gave unanimous consent to the proposal, but advocates were not as friendly. Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City said the new building was “devoid of architectural interest.”
Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council delivered the following testimony:
“The greenhouse that dominates the corner of 5th Avenue and 25th Street speaks to another era, and is the soft segue before one enters Green-Wood Cemetery. HDC is glad to see that this Individual Landmark will be lovingly restored and become a permanent piece of Green-Wood Cemetery’s marvelous collection of structures.”
“Despite its secure future, HDC is concerned about the landmark’s identity and the integrity of this landmark site. The committee feels that the new construction overwhelms the low-scale greenhouse and erodes the corner. While the west facade will be exposed as intended, the roofscape will no longer read clean against the sky, and instead be wrapped in the new construction’s roof.”
“HDC asks that the Commissioners discuss an alternative solution for this site, which would treat the greenhouse as the focal point, not an inconvenient landmark location, such as the Coignet Building in Gowanus. We especially would like to see an actual adaptive reuse of the space, not a lonely, empty greenhouse. Perhaps if a use in program is moved to this space, it could reduce square footage elsewhere.”