Volume 77 / Number 47 - April 23 - 29, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

N.Y.U. Law School’s original proposal for an at least eight-story building

N.Y.U. would drop curtain on O’Neill’s Playhouse

By Albert Amateau

New York University proposes to demolish the four-story buildings on MacDougal St. where the Provincetown Playhouse first produced the plays of Eugene O’Neill, and redevelop them to include new space for the university’s law school as well as a new theater.

Although not protected by city landmark designation and modified several times over the past nine decades, the row of four buildings and the 170-seat theater have iconic cultural significance.

The redevelopment of 133-139 MacDougal St. will be the first test of the N.Y.U. planning principles adopted in January with the support of the Community Task Force on N.Y.U. Development and Borough President Scott Stringer. The principles were adopted with the hope they would bring a new era of harmony between the university and its Village neighbors.

Located across MacDougal St. from the N.Y.U. Law School, and the property of the university since 1984, the theater is currently used by N.Y.U.’s Steinhardt School of Education for various programs.

The project, the subject of discussion over the past few months, came before a Community Task Force meeting last week, and will be presented at the May 28 meeting of Community Board 2’s Institutions Committee.

The project would replace the four adjacent sites with a new five-story building only 4 feet taller than the present one, plus a one-story penthouse set back and only partly visible from the street. The proposed new structure would have only 4,000 square feet more area than the current buildings.

The new facade would re-create the look of four individual buildings, instead of the undifferentiated front imposed in an earlier renovation. The entrance to the new theater would evoke the original.

The presentation to the Community Task Force last Wednesday prompted both respect and anxiety, especially because the proposal is as of right, requiring no special permits or variances.

The existing Provincetown Playhouse, to the left of the building on the corner.

Nevertheless, the building would be smaller than current zoning allows, with a proposed floor-to-area ratio of 4.8, instead of the 6.5 allowed under the zoning. Floor-to-area ratio, or F.A.R., refers to the total floor space of a building compared to the area of the property’s footprint.

“It’s not landmarked or in a historic district but the N.Y.U. planning principles will be involved and we see it as an opportunity to provide community input,” Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, said last week. “The name ‘Provincetown Playhouse’ invokes some history, so we have to be sensitive about that,” Hoylman added.

Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said he opposed the project.

“There’s no reason to demolish a building that is so important to the history of the Village, New York City and the history of the theater,” Berman said.

In an April 18 letter to John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, Berman cited one of the N.Y.U. planning principles that calls for reuse of existing buildings before new development. Berman said the society was encouraged because the project would not use all the bulk allowable, but he noted that the four buildings are within the proposed South Village Historic District, which N.Y.U. promised to support last year.

Demolishing the four buildings “would damage the chances of success of efforts to see a South Village Historic District designated, particularly in this area east of Sixth Ave.,” Berman said.

David Gruber, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Institutions Committee, acknowledged that the proposal would provoke controversy but said he was glad N.Y.U. hired an architect, Morris Ajmi, who is sensitive to the context of the neighborhood.

“This is the first N.Y.U. project to come under the planning principles of the Community Task Force and it’s amazingly historic,” Gruber said. “It’s true the facade is 60 years old and the property was cobbled out of four separate buildings, so the preservation is not a clear issue. But I think we have an opportunity to come up with a win-win solution for N.Y.U. and the community.”

Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. assistant vice president for government and community relations, said on Monday that the current proposal was considerably smaller than the eight-story, but-still-as-of-right building proposed by the law school more than a year ago.

The revised N.Y.U. proposal showing a new five-story building with a setback, one-story penthouse

“We had to make them understand the work we were doing with the Task Force,” Hurley said. In order to accommodate the law school’s request for more space and still keep the MacDougal St. project close to its current height and bulk, the university gave the law school the sole use of a premier property, the building at 22 Washington Square North, Hurley said.

David Reck, C.B. 2 Zoning Committee chairperson, called the project “interesting and relatively conservative.” He said that adapting the existing building for reuse would require considerable structural bracing and would leave less usable square footage.

The Provincetown Playhouse, which started on a wharf at the end of Cape Cod, opened at 139 MacDougal St. in 1916 and moved to No. 133 after two seasons, according to a Web site by Jeff Kennedy.

The Village site was where O’Neill’s “Bound East for Cardiff” was first read publicly, although the theater was officially a private club. At 137 MacDougal St. was the Liberal Club, for people interested in new ideas, and at 135 MacDougal was the Washington Square Bookshop, owned by publishers Charles and Albert Boni.

The “new” theater at 133 MacDougal St. opened in 1918 with one-act plays by O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Florence Kiper Frank. The 1920-’21 season featured O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” a hit that moved to Broadway, according to the Kennedy Web site.

In 1960, the theater hosted the long-running double bill of Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” and Edward Albee’s “A Zoo Story,” and the last hit play there was the Charles Busch camp comedy “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.”




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