By Andrew Berman, Executive Director Village Preservation
14 Gay Street is an 1827 house made famous by both photographer Berenice Abbott and writer Ruth McKenney. In 1930, the latter moved with her sister from Ohio into the basement apartment there. McKenney’s time at 14 Gay Street inspired her wildly popular series of stories in the New Yorker. Those stories became the basis for the book, plays, films, and TV and radio series My Sister Eileen, which in turn became the basis for the Leonard Bernstein film and play Wonderful Town. The house was landmarked along with most of Greenwich Village in 1969 as part of the Greenwich Village Historic District.
Now, it’s being torn down.
How we got to this outrageous and paradoxical point is a sad, but increasingly common, story of failed government oversight and real estate avarice, which we’re working to change.
14 Gay and five adjoining, equally old properties on Gay and Christopher Streets were bought by Lionel Nazarian in the spring of this year, after years of neglect and deteriorating conditions under prior owners, including the city, which took possession of the buildings for seven months in 2020 after a longtime owner died without a will. The city was aware of the poor conditions here and the shoddy track record of the new and former owners in maintaining and restoring the buildings (the city had actually brought a tenant harassment case against the new owner in the East Village, which involved allegations of unsafe work and conditions).
In early November, Nazarian got approval for plans to supposedly shore up 14 Gay Street and begin restoration. According to the city, the work was not done according to plan, and structural supports were illegally removed, undermining and threatening both 14 and 16 Gay. Numerous residents sent Village Preservation video and images of the clearly dangerous work and the damage done.
Responding to calls of threatening signs to the building, the City ruled 14 Gay in immediate danger, and ordered it to be dismantled by hand, rather than risking it falling down and causing further damage. Initially, 16 Gay was also thought to have to come down.
On November 14, Village Preservation held a rally and press conference in front of the buildings to call both the city and Nazarian to account. Hundreds participated, as did State Senator Brad Hoylman, City Councilmember Erik Bottcher, and Assemblymember Deborah Glick. There and in subsequent communications with the city, we and elected officials called for the following:
• Maximum penalties against the owner and all others responsible for the dangerous, unapproved work, to ensure no one profits, and all responsible pay a steep price, for destroying this landmark and threatening others.
• A requirement that the owner salvage every brick and piece of historic material possible from 14 Gay Street, for reuse as part of a faithful reconstruction of the building exactly as it was.
• Reform to the city’s system of review of cases like these, for more direct oversight and on-site inspection of work when any of the following is true, as all were at 14 Gay: a landmarked property is particularly old and fragile; it’s in particularly poor condition; and/or the owner has a track record of problems with maintaining properties.
• All efforts be made to ensure 16 Gay Street and the four other adjoining jointly-owned and equally historic, fragile, and troubled properties are repaired, and don’t suffer a similar fate.
We’ve made some progress, but we still have a long way to go.
The city has said that 16 Gay is no longer being considered for demolition due to unsafe conditions, and work will begin to restore it. They have committed to ensure repairs and restoration are done to the other four properties under strict oversight. The owner is being required to dismantle 14 Gay such as to allow the maximum possible reuse of historic material and a faithful reconstruction of the historic house as it was. We have been told that maximum penalties will be sought against the responsible parties, although no specifics have yet been provided. And we have been told that the city will take further steps to ensure the types of vulnerable properties we described receive stricter and more hands-on oversight to ensure situations like these don’t happen again, though the city has thus far been short on particulars.
While this is progress, we consider this case far from closed. Getting the city to keep these commitments will require vigilance and hard work, and the outcome is far from guaranteed. And some of the city’s commitments, especially regarding penalties for responsible owners and more careful and effective oversight, have been frustratingly vague so far, and don’t offer the specific assurances we demand and the public deserves. We also want to be sure it’s clear that this tragedy was avoidable, such situations must never happen again, and that both the city and the owner bear responsibility for this outrageous failing.
So we will continue the fight, at 14 Gay Street and beyond. If we don’t, it sends the message that destroying our city’s history is as simple as doing illegal work to make these precious structures unsafe, and recalcitrant owners and developers will reap the rewards of their misdeeds. And we can’t allow that to happen — too much is at stake, especially in our neighborhood.