Volume 74, Number 41 | February 16 - 22, 2005

Ladies’ Mile landmark being converted into condos

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
The former Hugh O’Neill dry goods store on Sixth Ave. will become be 47 luxury apartments.

By Jefferson Siegel

On the Ladies’ Mile portion of Sixth Ave., a landmarked building is undergoing a luxury conversion, giving new condo owners the opportunity to pump on their stairmasters while gazing out of oversized windows that once were eye-level with the elevated subway.

Sixth Ave. from 18th St. to the east side of 24th St. is part of the landmarked Ladies’ Mile Historic District. What makes the conversion of the O’Neill Building, which in the 1800s housed a department store on a scale with today’s big-box Circuit Cities and Home Depots, special is its classic cast-iron exterior and the building’s history.

According to city records, the developer, Elad Properties, bought the building in December 2003 for $37 million. They have filed an application with the City Planning Commission outlining their intent to preserve the facade while adding a two-story penthouse on a roof setback. In order to add the additional floors, the owner purchased air rights from Congregation Shearith Israel, which owns a cemetery on an adjoining lot.

The application details plans to convert the original top four floors of the five-story structure into residences. The new two-story penthouse would be set back and constructed with a sloping roof, so that, as proposed in the application, “the visibility of the enlargement from the street [will] be minimalized.” Street-level businesses are expected to remain.

To preserve the historic character of the building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission will issue a restrictive declaration, which binds the current and any future owners to the Landmark Commission’s maintenance agreement. This building’s exterior must be preserved in its current state in perpetuity.

Cetra Ruddy Inc., the Soho architectural firm, is working on the restoration. A key feature and prime selling point will be the rebuilding of two gold domes on the north and south corners of the roof.

The original domes were removed early in the 20th century. John Wharton, the project manager, said of the original domes: “They were originally taken down when the building was expanded; an extra floor was added. The new domes are going to be a library or gallery space for the owners” of the new penthouse floors, he said. No original architectural plans for the domes could be located, so designs were based on old photographs from New York City archives that were originally taken to document the adjacent Sixth Ave. elevated railroad.

Before its recent purchase, the upper floors of the O’Neill building had been home to several small dot-com businesses. When the building opens for residency in spring 2006, it will include 49 condominium residences, varying in size from 1,600 to 3,000 sq. ft.

The Ladies’ Mile began its journey in the mid-19th century when the Stewart department store opened on Broadway and Ninth St. With the Stewart store and, a block south, the John Wanamaker store becoming anchor merchants, other businesses flocked to the area, lining Broadway up to 23rd St. As demand for larger spaces increased, Stern Brothers opened a department store on 23rd St. west of the Flatiron Building. (The six-story cast-iron building now houses Manhattan’s first Home Depot.) Sixth Ave. soon filled with intricately-designed Beaux-Arts shopping emporiums, including the Siegel-Cooper Dry Goods store (now home to Bed, Bath & Beyond), the original B. Altman’s on the northwest corner of 18th St, and the Hugh O’Neill Dry Goods store between 20th and 21st Sts.

Access to the area was facilitated by the Sixth Ave. elevated railroad, which had a stop on 18th St. Merchants incorporated large windows into their ground floors to catch the eyes of passing riders. Seeing these display windows became easier in 1903, when sight-obscuring steam carriages were replaced by electric trains. But in 1938, the transportation link underwent a dramatic alteration when the city bought the El and began demolishing the steel superstructure. Two years later the new underground I.N.D. opened, without an 18th St. stop.

Jack Taylor, a longtime area preservationist and president of the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile District, was the driving force in securing the area’s landmark status in 1989. Commenting on the current O’Neill conversion, he said, “By and large we approved it; the Landmarks Commission did too. That’s par for the course now. Many buildings, originally retail and sometimes manufacturing, are being converted to residential.”

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