Volume 79, Number 11 | August 19 - 25, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Provincetown drama encore as theater’s wall partly removed

By Albert Amateau

The preservation of the original Provincetown Playhouse within a new building that New York University is constructing at the MacDougal St. site was put on hold on Aug. 18 after neighbors discovered that part of the historic playhouse wall that was to have been preserved had been removed.

The discovery of the missing wall segment last week outraged Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and prompted Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to demand on Monday that work related to the theater cease, except as related to structural stability, until the community is informed of the extent of the damage.

Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for government and community engagement, said a portion of the north wall of the theater, dating from before 1916, was removed about three weeks ago when it was found to be made partly of rubble and unstable. She said she discovered the removal only last Thurs., Aug. 13.

“My office should have known about it and takes full responsibility for the communications gap,” Hurley said. Work as related to the theater will cease and will not resume until a report is made to the community within the next two weeks. “The final shoring up of one wall of the theater is being done this week to hold everything in place, and then we’ll take a break from work in the theater part of the project,” Hurley said.

Work, however, will shift to the north end of the project.

Preservation of the playhouse, where Nobel Laureate Eugene O’Neill’s modern American plays took stage in the first two decades of the last century, was an emotional and contentious issue last year.

N.Y.U., which since 1984 has owned the building at 133-139 MacDougal St. where the 170-seat playhouse was located on the south end, agreed in June 2008 to preserve the theater’s four walls, stage and entrance and build the rest of the new five-story project around it.

The project was also seen as the first test of the “N.Y.U. planning principles,” which were adopted in January 2008 by the Community Task Force on N.Y.U. Development organized by Stringer. The principles — and, for some, the theater preservation project — heralded the beginning of harmonious relations between the university, its Village neighbors and elected officials.

The borough president said on Monday that while removal of a part of the playhouse wall may have been unavoidable, he was “outraged that the university did not pause to consult with [Community Board 2] and the task force before proceeding.

“Since the adoption of the planning principles, N.Y.U. has embarked on a new path of transparency and dialogue with neighbors,” he said. “The question for N.Y.U. now is — Do you want to go back to the old N.Y.U or continue on the new path where transparency is part of the lexicon?”

After learning from neighbors whose apartments overlook the street-level construction barriers that part of the theater wall had been removed, Berman recalled that the university last year initially had planned to save only the facade of the theater end of the entire project and none of the theater’s interior.

“But then they made a big announcement that they had reconsidered and would preserve the four walls of the theater — less than 6 percent of the interior,” Berman said in an e-mail to The Villager. “If they are demolishing parts of the four walls, then what is the difference between their new plan and their old one, except a broken promise?”

In another e-mail, Berman said, “What’s unfortunate and clear is that N.Y.U. has yet again been caught in a lie, the lie that they would preserve the walls of the theater in their entirety.”

Hurley said much of what was removed was below grade level and it was a composite of rubble, paving block and brick.

“The area that was brick and above grade, we will be able to replace with saved bricks and some new brick,” Hurley said, adding, “To date we have invested nearly $2 million in shoring up the existing structure and remain committed to preserving as much as we can.”

She noted that her office had a construction walk-through of the site with David Gruber — chairperson of Community Board 2’s Arts and Institutions Committee and a member of the task force — more than a month ago and prior to the discovery of the unstable section of the theater wall.

“If there was an error, it was that we should have brought David or someone from the task force back to explain what the engineers were advising,” Hurley said. “My office takes full responsibility and regrets this gap in communication.”

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