Volume 77 / Number 49 - May 7 - 13, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

N.Y.U. Sensitivity, First Act: O’Neill’s Playhouse

By Shirley Sealy

As a former longtime tenant of the Provincetown Apartments at 135 MacDougal St. — and one of the tenants there who were recently relocated to other N.Y.U.-owned buildings — I have a keen interest in N.Y.U. Law School’s redevelopment plans for the site.

Granted, part of my interest is sentimental; In addition to having spent 35 happy (and youthful) years in that building, I was an English major who came from Colorado to New York in hopes of finding some of the literary history I’d read about in college. I knew about the Provincetown Playhouse long before I got here, I knew about Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay and John Reid and all the others who frequented the theater, the bookstore and the famous Polly Holliday’s cafe — all of which were located in the four buildings that, in the early 1940s, were put together into what became 135 MacDougal St. And yes, living on those very premises did give me a very real connection to the historic literary “glamour” that is as much a part of Greenwich Village as, say, Washington Square, which happens to be just across the corner from 135 MacDougal.

Of course, Greenwich Village has more remnants of New York’s past than any other part of the city, and this particular block is exceptionally rich in history. (Three houses just to the south of No. 135 recently received landmark designation.) Much of the Village is already under landmark protection, thanks to the efforts of the city and state landmarks commissions and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. And, as The Villager and its readers know, G.V.S.H.P. is now seeking a historic district designation for the South Village area — which, of course, includes the Provincetown Playhouse building.

(A couple of full disclosure items: I’m a member of G.V.S.H.P.’s advisory committee on the South Village landmark effort, and I’m also a former employee of N.Y.U. Law School. Thus, I have a triple-whammy involvement in this issue that has left me with some conflicting and still evolving views.)

The tenants at 135 MacDougal were devastated last summer when we received notices to vacate our longtime homes at 135 MacDougal — and no mention was made of the possibility of relocating us. After our tenants’ group took immediate action by contacting John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, plus various city officials and the media (notably The Villager), we were in turn contacted by the Law School’s Lillian Zalta, who, over the next few months, took great pains to relocate us to N.Y.U.-owned apartments that are equivalent to, or even better than, the ones we had before. This good outcome, which was relatively quickly resolved, is what led me to believe that N.Y.U. — in particular, its Law School — is now displaying a new “sensitivity” to the needs of its Greenwich Village community. It is still too soon to tell, however, if the powers that be at N.Y.U. have completely turned the corner from their previous slash-and-burn attitude toward the expansion of the university’s “core” campus in the Village.

Although I’m greatly saddened to know that the main section of 135 MacDougal St. will be demolished, I am also resigned to that fact. It was in last The Villager two weeks ago that I learned of the specific plans for reconstruction on the site, and, frankly, I’m impressed by the overall effort to stay within guidelines outlined by G.V.S.H.P. for the proposed South Village Historic District area. The proposed replacement building would obviously blend in better with its older surroundings than some of the other monstrosities N.Y.U. has erected over the years. However, this proposed plan also includes the destruction of the Provincetown Playhouse — and I believe that is, in fact, totally unwarranted.

There is no part of the Village that is more beloved by me, personally — and by countless young English majors and wannabe New Yorkers from Oshkosh or Dubuque or Denver — than the Provincetown Playhouse. This is a big and significant piece of New York history! It’s true that the theater has undergone many renovations in its 100 or so years, but this does not mean we should not at least try to preserve the historic piece of brick and mortar that is there now. The fact is, the theater is a separate building from the rest of No. 135 — as is easily observed from what used to be the terrace of my old apartment.

Also, the inside of the theater was totally renovated (and its stage facilities technologically updated) within the last 10 years. In other words, N.Y.U. has already invested a great deal of money trying to keep the Provincetown theater as it has existed for nearly 70 years. It defies logic that it should now be totally demolished — when it might be feasible for the Law School to build around it.

Count me among the many who will continue to feel strongly about and continue to argue for the preservation of the Provincetown Playhouse, and not just for the reasons stated above. Most important, N.Y.U. has made a public commitment to uphold the designation of this property as part of a future South Village Historic District. While the university may have lately given indications that it has become sensitive to the needs of the Village community, it has a long way to go to convince this community that its new outreach efforts are sincere. The threatened destruction of the Provincetown Playhouse is, I believe, the first test of that commitment.

So, we shall see.

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