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Project at a Glance

Location:
New York, New York
Date:
1961-1964
Architect:
Albert C. Ledner
Advocacy Status:
Safe
Together the three NMU buildings put a bold face on Modern architecture in Manhattan all with a 1960s exuberance that is relatively scarce in New York when compared with other cities such as Los Angeles and Miami.
— DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State LPC testimony, 2008



 

Resembling a ship docked smack at the edge of New York’s Greenwich Village, the new headquarters building for the National Maritime Union made a dramatic impression when it was dedicated in May of 1964. And it still does. Designed by Albert Ledner and named for the union’s founding president, the Joseph Curran Building was a standout among the 19th- and early 20th-century architecture typifying Greenwich Village. The nautical theme was continued on the roof where the circular volumes of an elevator lobby and council chamber resemble the stacks of a ship. No longer a hiring hall for sailors, the building was purchased by St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1973 and renamed the Edward & Theresa O’Toole Building. It has housed outpatient clinics and medical offices since that date.

Historical Background
Throughout the first half of the 20th century the National Maritime Union (NMU) was operating out of seedy storefronts. By the mid-1950s, the NMU felt it was in a position to put its building program on a well-planned long-range track. Then president Joseph Curran declared “our buildings cannot just be boxes where the Union’s work is done. They are going to stand for the dignity of seamen and their importance to the community. They will express the strength and vision of our Union.”

Built at a cost of $6.4 million (including land), the new headquarters housed executive offices of the NMU/AFL-CIO; a board meeting room; offices for the pension and welfare plans and the Port of New York; two large hiring halls and an apartment for visiting union leaders.

Building
The Curran/O’Toole Building was designed by Albert Ledner. Furman & Furman, Architects served as the local associated architects. The primary volume is five stories with multiple roof structures constituting a sixth. Along 7th Avenue the bulk of the building cantilevers over the two, 110-ft across circular volumes of the first floor, each defined by a perimeter wall of 12-inch glass block. The fourth and fifth floors are also slightly cantilevered over the lower floors and are dramatized by scalloped-edge profiles. These overhangs produce an interesting play of light and shadow. The rectangularized pattern of the jointing of the exterior concrete panels and the overhang accentuates the various wall planes, both visible and partially hidden. To the west of the main mass, parallel to 7th Avenue, a six-story slab volume runs the length of the building for circulation, mechanical and restrooms. West of the slab is a small, cubic, six-story volume that fills an adjacent lot and houses additional offices and on the roof level, the apartment. After the sale to St. Vincent’s Hospital the expansive circular hiring halls at street level were filled in with offices. The entrance extension mid-block and the unwelcoming, zoo-like fence are not original.

The building’s appearance of solid concrete is actually accomplished through hung precast concrete panels. Originally painted white, the NMU had 1-inch white mosaic tile bonded to the panels in 1966 for maintenance reasons. The panels form a curtain wall brought out 2.5 feet from the glass curtain wall behind. The opposing scalloped edge cutouts of the panels appear as portholes when seen in straight-on elevation. Albert Ledner’s original design was for a building of structural concrete. When contractor’s estimates came in $2 million over the budget more common steel framing techniques were substituted. The structural compromise is turned to advantage on the fourth and fifth floors where the panels temper sunlight and yield a two-layered wall of intriguing effects.

Initial planning anticipated the need for an environmentally sound concept. The projecting overhanging concrete panels shaded the floor-to-ceiling glass walls on the fourth and fifth floors A small linear fin tube steam heating element was built in at the base of the interior side of the glass wall providing radiant heat to reduce load on the interior heating system during winter. In the summer, a continuous row of hopper windows at the base of the glass block walls provided natural ventilation.

An article in the Village Voice highlighting the opening of the Joseph Curran Building in 1964 reinforced the significance of visible union headquarters to the labor movement. “The elegance and style of the NMU building is a symbol of the upward mobility of the labor movement since the 1930s.” The journalist Mary Perot Nichols wrote in the Village Voice that the building was palatial and highly tasteful, and described the over scaled, floor-high cornices with their scalloped lower edge as giving the impression of either portholes or waves. She added that the whole thing had a Moorish quality recalling the rollicking days of the Barbary pirates. Ada Louise Huxtable, in her NY Times review of the building derided the structural compromise due to budget constraints but cited the building’s appeal favorably. She placed the building within a Wrightian aesthetic—Ledner had been Wright’s student—calling it striking and with many handsome details and high and painstaking design standards. She praised the Union and its architect for not doing what was typical of the period:

"There is no reason why the NMU could not have followed the line of least resistance and added another cheap, dull, routine box with a shiny façade and a big sign to the New York scene…Or it could have treated itself to some Miami flash or the vulgar and ponderous marble banality that is the general level of most union national headquarters. It decided, instead, to go for architecture. Whatever reservation may be held, New York needs more of those decisions.” NY Times, March 31, 1964

Albert Ledner
Albert Ledner graduated from the Tulane University School of Architecture in 1948. Upon graduation he studied with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, WI on a fellowship. By 1950 he had begun his solo practice based in New Orleans, LA. At the age of 30 Ledner began his long association with the NMU—14 projects total. In 1954 he designed the first union hall, in New Orleans, followed by another hall in Mobile in 1955. In 1956 Ledner designed the Baltimore hall. The Houston hall followed in 1958; Norfork, VA in 1959. By the mid 1960s he had designed the New York hall/headquarters, as well as the National Maritime Union Park at the 1964 New York World’s Fair—the only union-sponsored project at the fair. In 1965 the Norfolk hall was built. Finally in 1966 Ledner designed the 11-story NMU Training School and dormitory in New York, later adding the Joseph Curran Annex Building, both at 100 9th Avenue (Now the Maritime Hotel).

Ledner has maintained an architectural practice since that time, based in New Orleans, and continues a limited practice at age 85. In these projects for the NMU, Wright’s influence and the predominant tenets of organic architecture are palpable. The design approach for each hall is well integrated with its site. In addition, the adjoining volumes, circulation plan, floor layouts, interior design and furnishings become part of a unified, interrelated composition.

DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State held an event on September 25, 2007 featuring Albert Ledner discussing his work for the National Maritime Union and specifically the Curran/O’Toole Building. The chapter also prepared a backgrounder that includes images, historical information about the building and its architect as well as background on the redevelopment plans.

Recent Activity/Redevelopment
The O’Toole Building’s owner, Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Centers, is a nonprofit corporation that owns and operates two hospitals in Manhattan. Following a 2007 Chapter 11 reorganization, Saint Vincent’s announced plans to build a slightly smaller, more efficient hospital complex by consolidating and relocating all hospital services from the current hospital site on the east side of 7th Avenue to a new hospital tower on the O’Toole Building site. The hospital would then vacate the buildings east of 7th Avenue and turn the property over to its development partner, The Rudin Management Company, which would commence to clear the site of most buildings and develop it primarily as residential real estate.

In May 2008, following several public hearings, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) denied the hospital’s proposal to demolish the O’Toole Building and build a proposed 329-foot tower, citing the Curran/O’Toole Building as “an iconic modern landmark.” (The building was previously included in the Greenwich Village Historic District designation of 1969.) In October 2008, the hospital re-applied under provisions that permit nonprofit institutions to claim hardship as a basis for demolishing their buildings. An institution must prove that the costs of maintaining its building for the current use interferes with the institution’s ability to carry out its charitable mission. The Landmarks Commission subsequently voted&#151in a narrow 6-4 vote&#151to approve the hospital’s hardship petition, thus allowing the O’Toole Building to be razed amidst the protests of preservation and community groups.

In March 2009, a coalition of preservation and community groups led by Protect the Village Historic District (PVHD) and including DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State, filed an Article 78 appeal against St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers. The lawsuit alleges that the LPC’s approval of the hardship petition misconstrued the City’s Landmarks Preservation law and failed to properly consider viable alternatives. At the close of 2009, the legal action was making its way through the courts and the LPC had approved the plans for the new hospital tower on the site.

&#151Hänsel Hernandez-Navarro and Kathleen Randall, December 2009

July 2010 Update
The legal action went on hold, as the did the entire redevelopment project, in early April 2010 when St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers announced it was closing the Greenwich Village hospital completely. After failing to find an institution to serve as a new partner neither further operations of the hospital nor the new project were financially viable. The LPC’s hardship ruling allowing demolition of the Curran/O’Toole Building is not transferred to a new entity, which bodes well for the future of the building. However until a new owner is in place we should not be so bold as to declare the building “safe.”

June 2011 Update
In April 2011 a new owner and use was identified for the Curran/O’Toole Building. As part of its bankruptcy restructuring St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers gave the Curran/O’Toole Building and the land below to the North Shore LIJ Health System. The new entity plans to renovate the building for use as a comprehensive health care facility with a 24/7 emergency room. The target date for completing the project is Fall 2013.

Perkins Eastman Architects is designing the conversion to the new use and is overseeing the renovation of the historic building. In July the proposed design and renovation plan will go before the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission for a Certificate of Appropriateness decision. DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State will testify at the C of A hearing and reach out to the owner and its architects in an effort to assure that the reuse plans respect the elements of the Curran/O’Toole Building that make it a Modern landmark.

September 2014 Update
In July 2014, North Shore-LIJ Health System completed an exterior renovation and a comprehensive interior adaptive reuse of the Curran/O'Toole Building. The new facility, Lenox Hill Healthplex, is a neighborhood medical complex with Manhattan's first freestanding emergency room. The project development included review of Ledner's original documents, a meeting with Ledner and continuing dialog with the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission and the NYS Historic Preservation Office.