An Architect’s Flotilla of West Side Buildings
New York Times 11/25/2007
By Christopher Gray
The New Orleans architect Albert C. Ledner’s three offbeat creations for the National Maritime Union came ashore in New York in the 1960s, their porthole facades impudent in the face of doctrinaire modernism. The union sold off all three buildings within two decades. One of the pair on Ninth Avenue and West 17th Street is now the Maritime Hotel; the other, too, may soon morph into a hotel.
But the fate of the third building — owned by St. Vincent’s Hospital at Seventh Avenue and 12th Street — is uncertain. The hospital wants to replace it with a high-rise, despite pleas from the preservation group Docomomo and despite the facade’s status as a landmark.
In the 1950s, the National Maritime Union, running at flank speed on the seas of the mid-American century, began an ambitious program to build hiring halls, residences and training centers for its members. The union hired Mr. Ledner, then just a few years out of Tulane University.
In 1958, when the port of New York still had plenty of jobs, the Maritime Union announced construction of a new headquarters to be designed by Mr. Ledner, on Seventh Avenue from 12th to 13th Streets. Completed in 1964, the six-story structure rests on two glass block cylinders — the hiring halls — with the walls above rendered as scalloped overhangs, with porthole symbolism.
Two years later, the union finished an annex, at 346 West 17th Street, Ledner’s most dramatic work. Its 11 stories are dotted with over 100 portholes and slope back 20 feet from the base. When completed, the white tile facade burst out from its low-rise tenement surroundings like a storm wave over the bow.
A few years afterward, Mr. Ledner devised a flanking wing for the annex, running from 17th down to 16th Street on the east side of Ninth Avenue. He gave it portholes, too, but rendered it in a shape like a thick pizza box on end, stark and rectangular.
Even in the permissive ’60s, the implicit humor of this unorthodox trio transgressed mightily against the dead-serious modernism of the period. For the architectural elite, a nautically themed hiring hall for rough-and-tumble seamen was not much more than Disneyland.
But just as the Maritime Union was completing its building campaign, the port of New York was collapsing, at least from the workers’ point of view. In 1973, the union sold the Seventh Avenue building to St. Vincent’s Hospital, diagonally across the street, and St. Vincent’s has used it as the O’Toole Building. The two buildings at 17th Street and Ninth Avenue were largely empty in 1987, when Covenant House acquired them for its programs for runaway youths.
Now, St. Vincent’s has announced the sale of its complex on the east side of Seventh Avenue, from 11th to 12th Streets. It wants to use the money to replace the O’Toole Building with a new hospital, perhaps 21 stories high.
But the building is included in the Greenwich Village Historic District; for the project to go ahead, the Landmarks Preservation Commission must signal that the O’Toole Building, mentioned very favorably in the commission’s original designation report, is disposable.
It does lack the brilliant clarity of the West 17th Street structure. But it is nearly intact. Docomomo members have posted a brief on Ledner’s building at docomomo-us.org/files/.
Over on 17th Street and Ninth Avenue, Mr. Ledner’s legacy is more seriously compromised. The pizza box building was converted to the Maritime Hotel several years ago. Today, it has a spruced-up facade, but there is retail space built out onto the open plaza, which originally defined the stark rectangular form.
In the 1990s, the slope-sided annex structure suffered a humorless alteration that almost succeeded in eliminating its kicky maritime flavor: the dramatic intersection of the sloped facade with the sidewalk was covered over with fake storefronts.
That structure is now owned by 346 West 17th Street L.L.C., which has filed plans to convert it, too, to hotel use. An executive of the company, Eran Nornberg, said his group was simply exploring its options. Even if the owners proceed, they may well decide that this town isn’t big enough for two porthole hotels and proceed with the theme of the alteration job started in the 1990s.
In September, Albert Ledner came to New York to participate in a Docomomo seminar on his work. He was aghast at the fake storefronts on the 17th Street building, but thought the Maritime Hotel’s build-out on the plaza was intelligently done.
He really does love his first-born, the O’Toole Building, however, and later wrote Docomomo to suggest that New York buy the structure from St. Vincent’s for a “Greenwich Village Historical Museum.”
“It was just a shot in the dark,” he said later. “I’m not that much of a fool to assume that it would just happen, but my thought was that you plant a seed and sometimes it will just grow.”
Anyway, he said, even if the O’Toole Building is demolished, the other two structures survive and “two out of three — that ain’t too bad.”