Volume 80, Number 39 | February 24 - March 2, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Jefferson Siegel

As Pete Hamill, right, and others listened, Rob Hollander, left, of Save the Lower East Side spoke about the significance of 35 Cooper Square to the neighborhood.

Hamill decries ‘vandalism’ of old Cooper Sq. house

By Jefferson Siegel

As dusk settled over the East Village Tuesday night, Pete Hamill, the renowned journalist and author, stood by a window overlooking Cooper Square. Across the street, he saw a crowd lighting candles in front of 35 Cooper Square.

“Holy s--t!” he exclaimed to no one in particular. “Thank God, there are still New Yorkers trying to save this city!”

Hamill grabbed his hat and coat and walked across the windy square to join several dozen people who were calling for No. 35 to be landmarked. Recently, preservationists were outraged when the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to designate the three-story 1825 structure. The commission ruled that the building’s facade had been altered when a brownstone coating was applied to the exterior, thus disqualifying it as being architecturally significant.

As people shielded candles from the wind, David Mulkins, the chairperson of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, or BAN, led the call to arms.

“The historic significance of this building is overwhelming. This is the oldest building on a New York City town square,” Mulkins said as people holding signs illuminated by flickering candles bunched together on the narrow sidewalk.

“Abe Lincoln would have walked by this building on his way to make his anti-slavery speech in Cooper Union’s Great Hall,” Mulkins said, excoriating L.P.C.’s decision despite support from more than a dozen prominent preservation and community groups, architects and even a former L.P.C. commissioner.

The oldest building in Cooper Square, No. 35 predates Cooper Union by 30 years. Residents have included such notables as author Claude Brown, actor Joel Grey and Beat poet Diane di Prima.

A rally a month earlier was dominated by local elected officials. In contrast, Tuesday’s gathering was a veritable who’s who of local activists, preservationists and historians. 

“This really screams out, ‘Landmark!’” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. He pointed out that while about 3 percent of all city buildings are landmarked, in the East Village the figure is only 2 percent. 

Victor Papa of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council found other culprits. 

“Bloomberg and the city seem to be serving the needs of the developers. We’ll lose this very valuable legacy that identifies the Bowery,” he said. 

“It’s another chunk of history that’s lost,” lamented Andrea Coyle of the Lower East Side History Project.

Hamill didn’t seem to be speaking to the crowd as much as rubbing elbows with friends in a neighborhood bar. 

“The vandalism being done to this building is enough to make a person throw up. This is our inheritance,” Hamill said as he gestured toward the Federal-style building now partially hidden behind scaffolding.

Recalling his early days at 309 E. Ninth St., Hamill waxed poetic.

“When I walk past that building I’m 21 again,” he said. “In order to make the present as rich as possible, you have to have a sense of the past.” 

As the crowd broke into a chant of “Keep 35 alive!” Hamill told a reporter, “Walt Whitman walked on this sidewalk. Every little fight preserves some of the past. There have to be triggers to memory.”

Some in the crowd passed out postcards addressed to L.P.C. Chairperson Robert Tierney, urging a public hearing. G.V.S.H.P.’s Berman said that at this late date, only the developer could save the building. Berman noted there has been some communication between both sides but nothing substantial enough yet to hang any hope on. 

East Village activist Barbara Caporale traces her ancestry back through several generations in the area. 

“It’s from these roots that we bloom as artists, as activists,” she said. “How we keep our sense of self is dependent on those who came before us.”

As of Wednesday morning, 1,641 people had signed a petition at http://boweryalliance.org/ calling on L.P.C. to designate 35 Cooper Square a landmark.

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