Condo, Hotel, or School?

Last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced his intention to sell three city buildings (346 Broadway, 49-51 Chambers, and 22 Reade), possibly to developers who might convert them into condos or hotels. Local politicians, however, would like them turned into schools or affordable housing. What exactly is at stake here? Let’s take a peek at 49-51 Chambers.

(But first, read about 346 Broadway here.)

I know the building(s?) from going to Community Board 1 committee meetings, many of which are held on the seventh floor. I had never seen more than the lobby and the seventh floor, though, so I wandered over to do some diligence. First, let’s admire the façade(s?). The hell with this “(s)” business: It’s one building, or rather two that have been conjoined.

Click to enlarge

The AIA Guide has historical background: “Originally Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank Building/now City of New York office building, 51 Chambers St., between Broadway and Elk St. N side to Reade St. 1908-1912. Raymond F. Almirall [the architect]. The third facility of the Emigrant Bank to occupy this site. Organized in 1851 to serve the City’s Irish Catholic immigrant population, the Emigrant was once America’s wealthiest savings bank. The building, a mix of Beaux Arts and Art Nouveau, is now used by the City’s bureaucracy. Note the ranks of copper oriels in the light courts and the spirited—if somewhat flat—sculptures that top each wing: The source of Almirall’s ornament was Vienna, not Dublin.” P.S. The “Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank” on the western and eastern sides is actually written in white brick, not painted on.

The building is U-shaped, with entrances at either tip of the U; the (old?) main entrance appears to be solely for wheelchair access now, if the ugly black plywood ramp is any indication.

As with 346 Broadway, the façade has marvelous details.

What knockers, as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein might say. I entered the building at 49 Chambers, the eastern door. There’s a security station, but it’s less aggressive than 346 Broadway. (You have to show ID, but you can keep your belt on.) The lobby is ornate, but I didn’t want to get kicked out for taking photos just yet, so I got in the elevator and went to 14, which is actually 13. I think the 13 superstition is idiotic, but in a commercial building, fine—why risk alienating a renter? Government workers, however, should suck it up.

The hallways are extremely depressing. They look even sicklier because there the light in many of the hallways turned my photos green. (The hallways are generally beige.) I tried to tone the green down after the fact, but it’s still unpleasant.

And the hallways all pretty much look like that (but they’re not all green, at least).

Did you notice the windows looking into the hall? Reminds me of school (but then many depressing, institutional buildings remind of school.) Most floors had a few nice details, though. I love mosaic.

Although it’s hard to tell in the above photo, the bottom half of the light glows red if the elevator is going down. I turned the last two photos into black-and-whites because the green was overwhleming.

The glassed-off stairways, separated from the halls by red swing doors, are pretty great. The stairs themselves are narrow, though. Two adults would have a hard time passing each other without possible accusations of frottage. By the way, frottage is the word of the day. Try to use it in a sentence! Bonus points for frotteur.

I stopped on the seventh floor because I thought I might be able to peek into a room. The one where many CB1 committee meetings are held was in use, and it’s unremarkable—the character was remodeled right out of the building. I did see the anteroom below. Can’t you just hear someone saying, “Wait here until the principal is ready to see you.”

The only interesting thing here is more transom-like windows. I think these may have looked into the men’s room, which had some great tiling—it reminded me of Weather Up.

On the first floor—I think (I got confused)—there were also stairs that broke the sad, green monotony of the hallway.

More stairs lead back down; on the plateau are windows that look outside—fresh air was coming in—but I’m not 100% sure what the hell I was looking at. And since I had to use the flash to see/capture it, I got the heck out fast. I don’t like flash anyway, and I like it even less when I’m trying to be sneaky.

Part of the reason I was confused was that the first floor wasn’t the ground floor—as if this were Europe or something. I headed to the western end of the building, figuring I’d take the stairs to the lobby. I went down at least four flights, maybe as many as six, before I got to the lobby. (The stairs keep going….) At one point, the thought occurred to me that I had discovered a portal to hell, except the stairwell was suddenly marble-lined, so maybe it was more of a The Devil’s Advocate kind of hell.

The upshot: No one was in the western lobby, so I could take a photo unobserved. To the best of my knowledge, you can’t get to the other lobby without going to the so-called first floor (or possibly downstairs).

The bottom line? I have such a stiffy fondness for these old buildings that I wish Matt Abramcyk would take them all over and turn them into Smith & Mills–y hotels. Whether the Civic Center needs a hotel—especially if Temple Court turns into one, and what with FiDi’s boom in mid-level hotels—remains a significant question. But while 346 Broadway would make awesome condos, this stretch of Chambers—with the Tweed Courthouse across the street and the Municipal Building down the block—just doesn’t feel residential. As great as the lobbies are, most of the charm of 49-51 Chambers is on the outside, and maybe the city can handle taking care of it. As for the inside: 1) It already feels like a school. 2) If the stairwells are too narrow for older kids, make it an elementary school, where kids don’t move around as much. 3) The adjacent parking lot would work perfectly as a play area. Case closed.

On parade day, when I was walking fighting my way down Reade to get to the subway, I realized that the building is H-shaped, not U-shaped. I can’t tell to what extent the Reade side (which has a Reade Street address) is a separate building—I don’t think it is at all, but the doors appear to be unused. But when I was in the building, I saw no obvious way to get to the northern half. It wouldn’t matter except I noticed what must have been the bank’s once-dazzling lobby, barely visible in the photo below (click to enlarge).

UPDATE: A reader wrote in about the old bank lobby: “It’s still in great shape. The Council used it for about a year for public meetings while city hall was being renovated, so you should be able to find some recent photos online. They made some temporary modifications for it to handle the public meetings, which you’ll notice in the photos, but prior to that it was in renovated condition, and it’s likely back that way since it’s an interior landmark.” The photo below by Hiroko Masuike comes from this New York Times story.

P.S. Can you get me into 22 Reade? Email I took matters into my own hands.


1 Comment

  1. Exploring those great old buildings is really fun. But I had to look up frottage–hmm.
    Hope to get to the Blue Lotus some time before long. It seems to have a lovely mix of cuisines.