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St. Vincent's Hospital's Ambitious Building Plans

Hospital wants to demolish former National Maritime Union Building for a new hospital tower and replace most of its other buildings with a residential complex to be built by the Rudin family

Proposed plan

Proposed: New hospital tower, left, new residential development right

O'Toole, loading and hospital buildings

Now: O'Toole Building, left, loading station, foreground, hospital buildings, background right

By Carter B. Horsley

In October, 2007, St. Vincent's Hospital unveiled its plans for a new hospital building to rise on the site of its Edward and Theresa O'Toole Medical Services Building on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 12th Street and the plans of Rudin Family Holdings to redevelop 8 of the hospital's buildings on the western portion of the block bounded by 11th and 12th Streets and Sixth and Seventh Avenues.

Henry Ameruso and William Rudin

Henry Ameruso, CEO of hospital, left, William Rudin, right

The proposed 21-story hospital building, which has been designed by Ian Bader of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, would have a 4-story base and a setback curved tower. The tower would be about 300 feet tall. Apart from its four-story base and a setback near its top, the design of the new hospital building's tower resembles in its elliptical lenticular shape with "cutting edges" the famous "Boat Building" designed by Max Abramovitz in 1963 for the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company in Hartford, Conn. Mr. Bader indicated that the new building would be masonry- rather than glass-clad and probably of a reddish color.

Ian Bader Dan Kaplan

Ian Bader, left, and Dan Kaplan, right

Across the avenue, the residential development would consist of a 21-story building on the avenue that would be about 260 feet high including roof-top mechanical spaces and 19 townhouses with stoops on the two side-streets and one mid-block, mid-rise building on 12th Street. Dan Kaplan of FXFowle is the architect for the Rudin project.

In addition to these two sites, the hospital owns the triangular block that used to be occupied by the Loew's Sheridan movie theater just south of the O'Toole Building. That block is now used by the hospital mostly as a "loading dock."

The hospital's planned tower and the shorter residential tower on the avenue are configured to "open up" vistas as the hospital's setback tower curves back from the avenue and the residential building has an asymmetrical facade much of which is slightly angled away from the avenue at its south end.

The planned buildings are in the Greenwich Village Historic District, but the hospital has not yet submitted a formal application for a certificate of appropriateness from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The proposed projects will also require numerous other public approvals relating to zoning.

At the fall meeting in the hospital's auditorium, William Rudin, the CEO of the Rudin organization, said that his company has agreed to pay the hospital about $500 a buildable square feet for its residential development, or about $300 million, under the envisioned residential building plans that total about 625,000 square feet. The hospital's building is anticipated to cost about $700 million. It will contain 365 beds, one to a room, a substantial reduction from its present size of about 635 beds.

Loading station, left, and O'Toole Building right

The plan calls for the demolition of the four-story O'Toole Building, which was erected in 1961 and was designed by Albert C. Ledner and is notable for its white-ceramic-tile facades and its nautical motif. Once the new hospital is built and opened on this site, eight of the hospital's 9 buildings across the avenue will be demolished to make way for the Rudin's residential development.

Nighttime view of O'Toole Building

Nighttime view from the southeast of O'Toole Building

In 1977, the hospital acquired the National Maritime Union of America Building at 36 Seventh Avenue on the northwest corner at Seventh Avenue, which had been designed by Albert C. Ledner & Associates in 1964 and Ferrenz & Taylor altered it for the hospital to become the Edward and Theresa O'Toole Medical Services building.

View of triangle and O'Toole Building

View from Coleman Building of Triangular block and O'Toole building with Empire State Building at upper right

In their great book, "The A. I. A. Guide to New York City, Fourth Edition," (Three Rivers Press, 2000), Elliot Willensky and Norval White describe it as a "huge double-dentured monument…without precedent." Veneered with small, white-glazed tesserae, its cantilevered form is unusual in the city, joining such important modern cantilevered structures as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Whitney Museum of American Art by Marcel Breuer.

Two years after designing the O'Toole Building, Ledner designed the National Maritime Union of America Joseph Curran Annex at 346 West 17th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues in Chelsea. In the third edition of the guide, authors Willensky and White described the 17th Street building as "A startingly white tile-faced, porthole-pierced front wall sloping 8 1/2 dress from vertical" which "was the architect's way of meeting the setback requirements of the 1961 Zoning Resolution."

The O'Toole Building's oceanliner styling is monumental and impressive and it is just as interesting and idiosyncratic as Edward Durrell Stone's Huntington Hartford Museum of Art on Columbus Circle that unfortunately is being completely remodeled after years of neglect by the city into a new design museum (see The City Review article). From a viewpoint of architecture interest and curiosity the O'Toole building is more unusual than the vast majority of structures in the Greenwich Village Historic District and one of the very few in the city that pays homage to the city's important waterfront history.

In his November 25, 2007 "Streetscapes" column in The New York Times, Christopher Gray provides the following commentary about Albert C. Ledner:

"The New Orleans architect Albert C. Ledner's three offbeat creations for the National Maritime Union came ashore in New York in the 1960s, their porthole facades impudent in the face of doctrinaire modernism....In the 1950s, the National Maritime Union, running at flank speed on the seas of the mid-American century, began an ambitious program to build hiring halls, residences and training centers for its members. The union hired Mr. Ledner, then just a few years out of Tulane University. In 1958, when the port of New York still had plenty of jobs, the Maritime Union announced construction of a new headquarters on Seventh Avenue from 12th to 13th Streets. Completed in 1964, the six-story structure rests on two glass block cylinders - the hiring halls, with the walls above rendered as scalloped overhangs, with porthole symbolism. Two years later, the union finished an annex, at 346 West 17th Street, Ledner's most dramatic work. Its 11 stories are dotted with over 100 portholes and slope back 20 feet from the base. When completed, the white tile facade burst out from its low-rise tenement surroundings like a storm wave over the bow. A few years afterward, Mr. Ledner devised a flanking wing for the annex....He gave it portholes, too....Even in the permissive '60s, the implicit humor of this unorthodox trio transgressed mightily against the dead-serious modernism of the period." (11/27/07)


Hospital's original building on 13th Street

Hospital's original building on 13th Street

The hospital, which was created 149 years ago, now serves as the only trauma center on the West Side from the Battery to 59th Street and that that area is undergoing very significant population growth that requires a 21st Century medical facility.

Seton building that was demolished in 1984

Seton Building that was demolished for new building in 1984

Like many hospitals in the city, St. Vincent's has tried to expand and modernize on its existing property and sadly has demolished some structures that were quite attractive. Indeed, the hospital demolished its very elegant and very handsome Georgian-style Elizabeth Bayley Seton Building of Schickel & Ditmars on the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 11th Street to make way for a new building in 1987 known as the George Link Jr. Pavilion at 165 West 11th Street, designed in Brutalist fashion by Ferrenz, Taylor, Clark & Associates.

The Seton Building that was demolished was certainly one of the most elegant and attractive institutional structures in Greenwich Village and not all that different from the very attractive Georgian-style buildings demolished by the Mt. Sinai Hospital uptown. Several years ago,

Early 20th Century frontage on 7th Avenue

Hospital's frontage on Seventh Avenue viewed from the northwest in early part of 20th Century

It seems that not only health-care institutions but educational institutions have no architecture taste, to say nothing of preservationist spirit, based on most buildings erected by New York University and Columbia University since World War II. To be generous, their architectural record is atrocious.

Early photograph of hospital complex

Early 20th Century photograph of hospital complex with aerial perspective from the southwest

One cannot be too much of a purist, however, without taking account the very complex and very important functions the health-care institutions provide the city. In some cases, conceivably, preservation may have to take a back seat, not to progress, but to necessity. Such an argument, however, is only valid when it can be clearly demonstrated that preservation is not a viable alterative.

The current administration of St. Vincent's Hospital has gone to great lengths to make its development project "transparent" and it deserves a lot of credit for holding numerous public meetings in which it has taken pains to explain how new government regulations require it to "downsize" in bed count as well as to explain how current medical technology is altering conventional wisdom about hospital care and operations. The general gist of their discussions has been that hospitals should focus on flexible and more efficient one-bed hospital rooms and that more procedures should be ambulatory and not require overnight or prolonged stays.

There have been remarkable and impressive new techniques and technologies that demand a good degree of modernization of facilities, but with Mayor Bloomberg stating that the city's population will expand by one million between now and 2030 one wonders whether dramatic reductions in the city's hospital bed inventory is advisable.

Some community activists have been critical of the hospital for failing to deliver on its promise of creating attractive open space on the former site of the Loew's Sheridan movie theater on the triangular block just to the south of the O'Toole Building.

"Loew's Sheridan
Loew's Sheridan movie theater that formerly occupied the triangular block and was main movie palace in Greenwich Village

Since the hospital has used the site only for a loading dock and not a particularly beautiful one at that, it is particularly galling that the movie theater was demolished as it was one of the most important cultural facilities in Greenwich Village. It was larger, of course, than the 8th Street and Art movie theaters on Eighth Street which have long since perished as has the Greenwich movie theater that was just across Greenwich Avenue from the Sheridan. While it is a bit too late to bemoan the outrageous destruction of almost all of the nation's wonderful movie palaces that apparently were never step inside of by preservationists, the use of a large triangular block to service trucks is not the highest and best use of the property.

Painting by Edward Hopper of Loew's Sheridan

Interior of Loew's Sheridan movie theater as painted by Edward Hopper

In 1987, the hospital also created its Materials Handling Center to replace The Village Green that had replaced the former Loew's Sheridan movie theater building, the largest and most important in Greenwich Village and one whose marbled 1921 interior was immortalized in a famous painting by Edward Hopper, shown above.

While it is understandable that the creation of an attractive open space might be appealing for some, one needs only proceed a couple of blocks in either direction along Greenwich Avenue to come to some attractive and green open spaces.

Inset rendering of tower floorplan

Rendering of new hospital building with inset showing floorplan of tower

One might have assumed that the triangular shape of the Sheridan block might not be appropriate for a major, new hospital building, but the new tower designed by Pei Freed Cobb would almost seem to fit if turned and Mr. Bader emphasized that its elliptical lenticular shape was very efficient for hospital "beds" and nursing stations. That tower, of course, rises atop a four-story base that occupies the full lot and that would not fit neatly on the Sheridan block, but the Sheridan block is not very small.

By switching the site for the new building, one could preserve the O'Toole structure and conceivably adapt much of its larger floor plates of the emergency rooms and the like now planned for a new structure on the site and if necessary create a tunnel under 12th street to a new building on the Sheridan site or a skybridge over the street to link the two buildings.

If switching the sites and preserving the O'Toole Building is not possible, perhaps an approach similar to what Lord Norman Foster used for the Hearst Corporation on the southwest corner of 57th Street and Eighth Avenue could be adapted that would preserve the exterior of the O'Toole Building.

Rendering of new hospital tower on O'Toole site

Rendering of new hospital tower planned for the O'Toole site just to north of triangular block

The logic behind the design of the curved Pei Freed Cobb tower is not immediately apparent and supposedly was based in part in related to its context and opening up views. The tower's form is dramatic and a definite modern "incursion" into the fabric of Greenwich Village, but not much less so than Richard Meier's white modernist mid-rise apartment houses on West Street or I. M. Pei's three towers at University Village south of Washington Square Park. By maintaining the streetwalls at the base, the building also tries to somewhat minimize its presence. The south facade of the setback tower has a setback three floors from the top, which is somewhat abrupt and detracts from its otherwise rather pure and handsome form.

Rendering showing new tower's height relationship to Coleman Building

Rendering from the southeast showing new hospital tower, center, and existing Coleman Building at the right

While it will be substantially higher than surrounding buildings it is not significantly higher and that issue is considerably muted when it is seen in the context of the new apartment building planned by the Rudins on the Seventh Avenue frontage.

View of some hospital properites on 12th Street

View of some hospital properties on 12th Street looking west

The residential component of the plan is superb and extremely contextual and handsome.

11th Street elevation with existing buildings outlined in red

Dan Kaplan showing drawing of 11th Street elevation of new residential buildings with existing buildings outlined in red

Elevation of new residential building on avenue with existing buildings outlined in red

Elevation of new residential building on avenue with existing buildings outlined in red

While it shifts most of the existing bulk of the hospital's buildings on the site to the avenue, it creates handsome townhouse rows with stoops that carry on the tradition of some of the Village's nicest blocks while replacing a hodge-podge of mid-rise buildings that were rather bulky and ominous.

Rendering of proposed residential development on south side of 12th Street looking west

Rendering of proposed residential development on south side of 12th Street looking west

Same view but with existing buildings ghosted

Same view but with existing buildings "ghosted"

View of proposed residential buildings on 11th Street looking west with existing buildings ghosted

Rendering indicates proposed new residential development on 11th Street looking west with existing buildings ghosted

Furthermore, the articulation of the avenue building is quite complex and strong.

Rendering of new residential building on avenue from the northwest Rendering of new residential building on the avenue from the southeast

Rendering of planned residential building on avenue from the northwest, left, and the southeast, right

View from the north

View of planned residential building on avenue from the north

Mr. Rudin said that although his company's residential projects have always been rental, the more than 400 apartments will be built as condominiums. In addition to the 21-story building on the avenue and 19 townhouses, the Rudin project includes a mid-rise, mid-block building, 15,000-square feet of retail space, 22,500 square feet of medical office space and a garage.

View from the southwest of Coleman and Link buildings

View from the southwest of Coleman and Link Buildings on Seventh Avenue

Location of existing hospital buildings east of Seventh Avenue

Location of existing hospital buildings east of Seventh Avenue

Proposed new residential developments on hospital properties

Proposed new residential developments on hospital properties

None of the hospital's existing buildings east of Seventh Avenue are particularly noteworthy architecturally as can be seen from the illustrations below.

In answer to a question from the audience about past promises from the hospital to create an attractive open space on the triangle block, Mr. Bader also emphasized that plans call for landscaping improvements to the "triangle" block.

The residential component planned by the Rudins is exemplary in its execution and in its adherence to the city's traditional "book-end" buildings on the avenues and short buildings in the mid-block.

Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, urged that the hospital not to increase its "overall density, and said his organization feels "strongly that the triangle bounded by Greenwich Avenue, West 12th Street, and 7th Avenue should not be built upon, and should serve as more of a public amenity and green space than it currently does, and as had always been promised."

An article by Albert Amateau in the Dec. 27-Jan. 2 edition of The Villager reported that "Neighborhood groups involved in the Greenwich Village Community Task Force on the redevelopment of St. Vincent’s Hospital have drafted an alternative to the current plan that would reduce the height of the new hospital from the proposed 321 feet down to 190 feet."

"The community alternative, which is not yet final," the article continued, "would also eliminate the 230-foot-tall residential tower on the east side of Seventh Ave. proposed by the Rudin Organization in partnership with the hospital.

"To accommodate the dramatic height reduction proposed for the new hospital on St. Vincent’s current O’Toole Building site on the west side of Seventh Ave., the alternative," which was discussed at a December 19 community board task force meeting, "calls for any facilities that cannot fit into a hospital of reduced size to be located in a second, smaller hospital building on the east side of the avenue. Rather than demolish all the hospital’s current buildings on the east side of the avenue for residential development, the alternative draft calls for adapting four of the buildings for residential reuse. The alternative plan considers those four buildings — Smith-Raskob, the Nurses Residence and the Reiss Pavilion on W. 12th St. and the Spellman Pavilion on W. 11th St. — all 10-stories or more, to be historic," Mr. Amateau wrote. (1/1/08)

An article by Albert Amateau in the February 22, 2008 edition of The Villager said that "St. Vincent’s Hospital officials are drafting a response to the Community Alternative Plan proposed last December to counter the St. Vincent’s/Rudin Organization redevelopment plan for a new hospital on the west side of Seventh Ave. and residential development on the east side of the avenue."

"The Alternative Plan, proposed by a coalition of neighborhood groups, including the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, calls for a hospital no taller than 190 feet, instead of the 329 feet medical center proposed by St. Vincent’s, for the west side of Seventh Ave. The Alternative Plan also calls for a combined residential/medical redevelopment on the avenue’s east side that would convert eight existing St. Vincent’s buildings to residential use, as well as construction of a second new hospital building 14 stories or less to accommodate medical facilities that could not fit in a smaller new hospital across the avenuate," the article stated.

The article said that the Alternative Plan, "which Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. director, presented to hospital officials and Community Board 2 members on Jan. 28, specifies a second hospital building on the east side of Seventh Ave. connected to the one on the west side by a 'current underground tunnel,'" adding that "hospital officials told The Villager last week that the state Department of Health, which has the final say on hospital design, would not approve a new hospital complex that would require patients to be brought down an elevator in one building and taken up a second elevator in another building."

The article quoted Bernadette Kingham-Bez, St. Vincent’s senior vice president for communications and planning, that the tunnel under Seventh Ave., running between hospital buildings on 12th St. on the east side of the avenue, to the small building and loading dock in the triangle on the west side, is used to move hospital material, equipment and waste by hand carts and for storage, adding that the tunnel does not connect under 12th St. to the O’Toole Building.

“In any case, we could not transport material and patients in the same tunnel; we’d need a new one,” Kingham-Bez said. in the article.

The tunnel was built by the hospital with a revocable permit from the city. Ms. Kingham-Bez told The Villager that dual hospital buildings on both sides of the avenue would present an insurmountable obstacle to phasing the change from the old to the new facility. (2/23/08)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission held a meeting April 1, 2008 to consider the appropriateness of the plans of St. Vincent's Hospital to build a new hospital building on the site of the nautically-styled O'Toole Building on the west side of Seventh Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets, shown at the right, and demolish nine of its existing buildings on the east side of Seventh Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets.

The hospital wants to erect a new, 21-story, hospital building designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners on the O'Toole site and is selling Rudin Family Holdings the rights to develop about 500 housing units on its sites across the avenue. The Rudin plan, designed by FXFowle, calls for a 21-story building on the avenue that would be about 260 feet high and townhouses with stoops on the two side-streets.

Expecting a huge turn-out from civic activists opposed to the plans, the commission held the meeting in a 913-seat theater at the Manhattan Community College at 199 West Street rather than in its own small meeting room in the Municipal Building.

The hospital lies within the Greenwich Village Historic District and the commission must rule on the appropriateness of the proposed demolitions as well as the appropriateness of the designs for new structures.

A coalition of neighborhood organizations, including the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, has proposed an "alternative" plan that would lower the height of the proposed new hospital building from about 330 feet to about 190 feet and calls for a second new hospital building on the east side of the avenue that might be connected to the one on the west side by a tunnel under the avenue.

On February 20, 2008, Henry Amoroso, president and CEO of Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Centers, wrote to Brad Hoylman, the chair of Community Board 2, whose committee on the plans unanimously voted in opposition to them, that the hospital had reviewed the "alternative" plan and found that it "is not feasible and lacks the tools necessary to ensure that this community has proper healthy care infrastructure."

"The existing hospital assemblage…has so many significant architectural, mechanical, and structural systems issues that no amount of renovation work can satisfy the demands of 21st Century healthcare," he wrote, adding that the alternative plan "divorces inpatient beds from emergency, surgical, and imaging services, violates health policy, would not receive Certificate of Need approval from the New York State Department of Health, and would cause a complete shutdown of hospital operations during demolition and reconstruction."

Furthermore, the letter continued, the alternative plan "is not a financially viable model" and "severable connections under or over 7th Avenue and 12th Street are very risky and unattainable." In addition, it also stated that the Smith and Raskob buildings "cannot accommodate the latest medical technologies nor accommodate the beds necessary to operate a hospital" and that "construction phasing of the plan would cause a 2-3 year suspension of health care service."

In today's edition of The New York Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff criticized as "most troubling" the hospital's plan to tear down "the 1963 O'Toole Building, one of the first buildings in the city to break with the Modernist mainstream as it was congealing into formulaic dogma."

"Designed by the New Orleans architect Albert C. Ledner, it is significant," Mr. Ouroussoff wrote, "both as a both of architecture and as a repository o cultural memory. It was built to house the National Maritime Union" and "its glistening white facade and scalloped overhangs, boldly cantilevered over the lower floors, were meant to conjure an ocean voyage….Its glass brick base, once the site of union halls, suggests an urban aquarium….This is not simply a question of losing a building; it's about masking those complexities and reducing New York history to a caricature." (4/1/08)

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