Volume 77 / Number 33 Jan. 16 - 22, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

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Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Edith O’Hara, owner of the 13th St. Repertory Theater, gestures toward historic 1790s building secluded in rear yard on W. 13th St.

N’bors howl over hotel on hidden historic site

By Albert Amateau

A hidden four-story Federal building on W. 13th St. that neighbors say dates from the 1790s could be one of the oldest buildings in the Village. But neighbors fear that a developer is about to acquire the property and replace the old building with a 16-story hotel.

The vacant Federal building, which is secluded in a rear yard, has the address 52-54 Rear. The site includes two other vacant low-rise buildings, 52 and 54 W. 13th St., which were until recently home to the Taste of Tokyo and La Dolce Vita restaurants. The buildings are located across the street from The New School and next door to the 13th St. Repertory Theater, whose owner, Edith O’Hara, 91, is engaged in a legal battle to retain control of her own property.

“I’ve been trying to get the Landmarks Preservation Commission interested in the Federal building, but because it’s mostly hidden from the street they don’t appear to be interested,” said Gardner Rankin, a preservation activist who lives on W. 12th St. at Sixth Ave.

“It’s not entirely invisible,” Rankin continued. “If you stand on the north side of 13th St. you can see the cornice of the building above the three- and two-story buildings that face the street. If you’re tall enough you can see the top-floor windows.”

Neighbors whose 16-story building on W. 12th St. is separated from the Federal building by a 30-foot rear yard met on Mon., Jan. 14, to find ways to stop the hotel project.

One suggestion was to outbid the developer, Keystone Group, which is trying to buy the property from the estate of the late owner. That would be costly — according to real estate sources, the closing price is about $10 million.

Keystone, which has 75 properties in Manhattan, filed a plan in November with the Department of Buildings to build the 16-story hotel at 52-54 W. 13th St., but the application was not accepted. Nevertheless, Keystone has posted a rendering of the hotel on its Web site at kgnewyork.com.

Moreover, Keystone has not closed the deal for the property yet, apparently because it has not yet acquired the air rights from the 13th St. Repertory Theater that it needs to build a 16-story hotel.

“And I’m not selling,” said O’Hara, who has owned the theater for the past 36 years. O’Hara was a friend of Ray Kertisz, the former owner of 52-54 W. 13th St., who died in 1994. “She lived in an apartment in the three-story building at 52,” O’Hara recalled. “And years ago Ethel Barrymore had a studio on the second floor of the two-story building at 54,” she added.

O’Hara thinks of the Federal building as a sister to the theater building.

“I have a document from 1821 that refers to a previous transfer in 1791 — that makes the theater as old as the Federal building,” O’Hara said.

But the ownership of the theater property is the subject of a court case between O’Hara and Stephen Lowentheil, who owns 50 percent of the stock and controls the board of directors of the corporation that owns the theater building. O’Hara owns 25 percent of the stock and she controls another 25 percent owned by the nonprofit 13th St. Repertory Theater.

She said Lowentheil wants to sell the theater’s air rights to Keystone for more than $2.1 million but he cannot do it unless he owns more than 50 percent of the stock. The stock ownership is the subject of the lawsuit.

Without the air rights from the theater, Keystone may not be able to build a hotel as high as it would like.

The residents of 59 W. 12th St., whose rear yard abuts the Federal building, want to preserve their views and are anxious about the effect of construction on their building. They hope they can get the Landmarks Preservation Commission to calendar the Federal building for a landmark designation hearing, thereby protecting the property from demolition until a designation is either approved or denied.

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