Back to the Future on Mercer Street

The SoHo weekly News, November 1973.  See the end of this post for highlights from this issue.

The SoHo weekly News, November 1973. See the end of this post for highlights from this issue.

So here I am one month into cataloging The SoHo Memory Archive, and I have begun with the easiest collection first—a box of The SoHo Weekly News that contains issues beginning with Volume One, Number 1, dated October 11, 1973 (the very first issue!), through the September 16, 1976 issue, with lots of gaps in between. Every issue I picked up contained something post-worthy. When I came across the November 29, 1973 issue, however, the headline seemed especially relevant to SoHo of today.

The headline reads “City Closing SoHo’s Historic Fire Station.” The brief article states that Engine Company 13 and Ladder Company 20 are moving out of the historic 155-157 Mercer Street building to a more modern building on Lafayette (where they and their Dalmatian named “20” still reside today) and that the building was to be returned to the real estate department of New York after 120 years of continuous use. The article goes on to say that the land was originally purchased in two pieces for a total of $3,900.

Drawing of the oringinal Firemen's Hall (source: MCNY via NYT)

Drawing of the original Firemen’s Hall (source: MCNY via NYT)

Firemen’s Hall, as the building was originally called, is an 1855 building that has been stripped over the years of most of its features and details.  In the early 19th century, fire fighting was done by an assortment of rival volunteer groups with no centralized director.  This hall was built as a headquarters for two of these groups—a move toward cooperation amongst competitors.  The upper floors housed a library, meeting room and reading room.  In 1865 the volunteer system was replaced by a professional fire department and in 1885 a new headquarters was built on 67 Street, leaving Firemen’s Hall to become a regular firehouse.

According to an article in The New York Times, when the building was built,

into the cornerstone were deposited a bible, the Book of Common Prayer and a dime from 1800, and carved on the brownstone piers on either side of the main doorway were hooks, ladders, axes and other tools of the trade. A fire helmet was carved on the keystone over the main entrance.

A drawing of Jenny (left)

A drawing of Jenny (right)

The article also describes Jenny:

the ring-tailed monkey. For 12 years Jenny served as mascot of Hook and Ladder No. 20, which was quartered at 155 Mercer. One time she woke the sleeping company to a fire in its own building by throwing billiard balls down a flight of stairs.

After Hook and Ladder No. 20 moved out in 1974 leaving their cornerstone and memories of Jenny behind, the building was home to Masjid al-Farah, a mosque now located on West Broadway, for two years.  My mother remembers hearing the sound of sirens from our window replaced by the call to prayer.  The city then sold the building to the Pellizzi Foundation in 1976 for $50,000, restrictive arts covenants were added in 1978, before it was resold to the Dia Foundation. When Dia moved to Chelsea in 1996, the restrictions were removed and it was sold to the Joyce Theater Foundation.

I moved in next door to the firehouse when I was 5, just before it closed. My mother remembers being woken up at all hours by the sirens, as we lived on the second floor of 159, spitting distance from the fireman’s pole. The firehouse was thus an arts center for basically my entire life, until last May when The Joyce Theater sold its building at 155 Mercer St. to Joseph Sitt’s Thor Equities for $27.25 million, according to the New York Post. $3,900 to $27.25 million over 160 years, quite an appreciation!

155-157 Mercer Street now vs. future

155-157 Mercer Street now vs. future

Oh dear, I thought. What kind of mega-retail space will the building become? The answer is not as bad as I feared, I suppose, according to a City Planning Commission report dated July 23, 2014:

The site is located in an M1-5A zoning district, which permits commercial and high-performance manufacturing uses, as well as Joint Living-Working Quarters for Artists.

Section 42-14(D)(2)(a) does not allow retail use below the floor level of the second story of a building that occupies more than 3,600 square feet of lot area. Other uses may be permitted below the floor level of the second story by special permit by the City Planning Commission, pursuant to Section 74-781 or, in the case of a building located in a Historic District designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Section 74-711.

In order to allow Use Group 6 retail use on the ground and cellar levels of the subject building, the applicant requests a special permit pursuant to Section 74-711 to modify the use regulations of Section 42-14(D)(2)(a), which would permit the entire building

to be occupied as a 3-story and cellar retail establishment.

As part of the redevelopment, the mezzanine level and a portion of the third floor will be removed. The resulting building will contain 14,589 gross square feet (10,137 gross square feet above grade) and a reduced FAR of 2.18. The building will be occupied by one retail tenant. No changes in bulk are proposed.

Also as part of the redevelopment, the applicant will restore the architectural features and 2 C 140263 ZSM original brownstone color of the building that have been removed over the past 40 years to more closely resemble the building’s original 1854 façade, based on historic photographs and drawings. The existing large, apparatus door will be replaced with glass, and the existing flagpole will be relocated.

The application includes a report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission stating that a continuing maintenance program has been established that will result in the preservation of 155 Mercer Street, and that the proposed use modification contributes to a preservation purpose.

Phew! If you did not wish to read all that, The New York Times put it in simpler terms:

The new owner, Thor Equities, has an unusual opportunity. For all intents and purposes there is nothing left of the original building. Thor could propose a contextual cast-iron type structure of five or six stories, or a shiny modern structure of the same height. But the developer needs a special permit to allow retail on the ground floor, and a restoration of the original facade makes such a permit easier to secure.

In order to be able to put a store on the first floor, Thor will recreate the old brownstone facade, although the brownstone will actually be precast concrete so that they can put a store on the ground floor instead of building a new “shiny modern structure” that would not be zoned for retail. What Thor is essentially doing is reverting to the past to move forward into the future. We get (one hopes) a tasteful recreation of the original building and they get to put a store on the first floor. Is this a happy ending for everyone? For Thor, yes. For the residents of Mercer Street? I’d have to say bittersweet with a little more bitter than sweet. These days, however, that’s the most one can hope for!

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Jim Statton’s column, “Keeping Aloft,” answers the question “How can I stand up to my landlord?”

Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime playing at The Performance Group

Midnight Cowboy playing at the Quad

A quart of Tropicana Orange Juice costs 29 cents at Sloan’s on Eighth Street

Weekly classified: Absurd heterosexual pornographer seeks uninhibited women or nylon fetishist, lesbian, dwarf, truck driving, pedophiliac, basket case greaser.

We will miss you Bruno's!

We will miss you Bruno’s!

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One Response to “Back to the Future on Mercer Street”

  1. Aristides Pappidas Says:

    I lived in the Fanelli[s] Bar building from 1963 to 1982. While cleaning the space prior to creating a studio/home there I found 2 battered fireman’s helmets that dated to the 19th Century. Mike Fanelli, when shown them, said I could keep them (probably not wanted by him for their poor condition). In the Seventies I gave the better of the two to a friend who collects this kind of memorabilia; I still have one. I respond to this posting because the most remarkable thing about the helmets were their sizes; they would probably be a good fit for a medium-sized 12 year old today and yes, I still occasionally speculate about the size of the firemen who wore these.

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