The $34 Million West Village Teardown

Today's Times spotlights the frustrations of preservationists trying to create a protected South Village Historic District. In the two years since the district was proposed, many landlords have altered or filed plans to demolish significant buildings. But as residents of the Far West Village can tell their neighbors to the south, a historic district does not mean there won't be casualties. Photographer Albert Watson sold his 20,000-square-foot live/work townhouse at 777 Washington Street for a crazy $34 million a little over a year ago. At the time, Watson said the 70-foot-wide building at the corner of Jane Street—with its 31 rooms, fireplace imported from France and terraces to make any New Yorker weep—would be preserved by its English financier buyer as a single-family home. "This is not a Superior Ink," Watson said, referencing the nearby warehouse that was controversially demolished to make way for condos. And while Watson was correct that this won't be a Superior Ink, that doesn't change the fact that 777 Washington has been reduced to rubble.

Last week we received some concerned e-mails from neighbors, who reported that the work going on at the corner of Washington and Jane over the past five weeks had suddenly turned from renovation to demolition. We dispatched Curbed photographer Will Femia to the scene, and the gory results are in the gallery above. Watson bought the building for $850,000 in 1985, back when the neighborhood was known more for its seediness than its Schnabelness, and renovated the former refrigeration plant into photo studios and a sprawling residence for his family. A Curbed tipster passed along some info on what's going on:

Landmarks gave permission for the new owners to extend the existing rooftop addition. They also gave permission to change the window design, and to move the entrance from Wash. St. to Jane St. The application was not controversial, and was approved by CB2 and by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The new owners soon encountered structural problems. The only way they could do the approved work was to completely demolish the facades and rebuild them. The LPC apparently did discuss this at a public meeting but it wasn't well publicized since no one in the community ever heard anything about it.

LPC is claiming that the building will be rebuilt exactly the way it was (except for the larger fourth floor and new windows). If people had known in advance that constructing the new rooftop addition would have required demolishing the entire building, there would have been a huge uproar. Many are upset that LPC didn't order a new public hearing when this new information became available, since obviously this represented a radical change in plans from what was initially approved.

The massive wall of permits posted at the site does include a lengthy memo detailing the Landmarks-approved work, including the use of new materials to match everything about the original, down to the joint width between the bricks. It won't be difficult to judge the success of the rebuilding: The website for Watson's original listing is still online and features plenty of photos. We believe the building went up in the late 1940s, making it a somewhat recent neighborhood addition compared to its surroundings. Does it make sense to try to recreate the magic?

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