Friday, September 17, 2010

The Fate of Two Treasures














Brits and Americans may be separated by more than a common language. Our views on what merits saving and what deserves the wrecking ball reveal that our differences might run deep.

Two buildings went up in the 1870s - one in London the other in Garden City, L.I. Both were High Victorian Gothic-style 500-room structures. Both were celebrated as architectural treasures from the moment they opened their doors. The similarities between the two edifices ended there.

St. Paul's in Garden City, built in 1879, was originally an all-boys college preparatory and science boarding school. Today it faces immediate demolition. If you've read Tearing Down Garden City at huffingtonpost.com, A Suburban Treasure Left to Die in The New York Times or the recent ScoutingNY.com post titled An Abandoned Treasure May Soon Be Lost - The Fight to Save St. Paul's you know that each story has been followed by an outpouring of shock and outrage. The evidence is in the comments sections at the end of each article. Most readers have clearly recognized the tragedy that the loss of St. Paul's would represent to New York's architectural heritage.

How close is St. Paul's to coming down? Very close. A town meeting on September 30th will mark the end of the public comments period that will determine if one of Long Island's key architectural masterpieces will be reduced to ruble. Why the rush to demolish? Garden City tax payers stand to save $200,000 per year post-demolition. St. Paul's was in use for over 100 years until 1991. It is described by preservationists as being in "impeccable shape."

Compare what is happening in Garden City to what occurred in London not long ago.

The words St. Pancras cover a lot of territory. They can be used to indicate a martyred Roman, a district of London, a grand hotel, a landmark railway station or one of many houses of worship. But to those with an interest in urban architecture those words conjure up images of only two things: London's Grand Midlands Hotel and William Barlow's iconic glass-roofed train shed.

The Grand Midlands Hotel, "somewhere between a northern French cathedral and one of Mad King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castles," is recognized as "one of Britain’s finest gothic revival buildings." The train station it stands attached to is described as "a soaring feat of Victorian engineering." It held the world record for the largest enclosed space for many years after it first opened in 1868. Both structures fell into ruin after years of neglect that followed their heyday. (More about the history of St. Pancras at www.worldbuildingsdirectory.com/projectdetails)


Recently, the buildings referred to collectively as St. Pancras were fully restored. The redevelopment of St. Pancras International cost £800 million but the tremendous financial investment was only part of the challenge of restoring both buildings. The A Grade 1-listed Victorian masterpieces were fully restored with the support of English Heritage but also under its careful gaze. English Heritage "exists to protect and promote England's spectacular historic environment and ensure that its past is researched and understood." Can you imagine then the excruciating detail or "red tape" that restorers had to contend with in order to make even the slightest changes to these buldings? Can you imagine what went into turning Victorian treasures into structures that could be fully functional in modern day London? Geoff Mann, principal director of RHWL, the project architect, explained it this way:

“The building had been empty for God knows how long and British Rail had sacrilegiously beaten up the details. For example, it had bashed holes in the fibrous plaster ceilings to put in hangers for suspended ceilings. All this made it quite difficult to ascertain what was behind the changes, which made it difficult to design."

On top of this, of course, was the building’s major shortcoming: the lack of toilets.

“We had to put them in,” says Mann, “and the plumbing and ventilation, but where in hell do you put all that stuff? The obvious answer was in the chimneys but every single one was full of bricks and dead pigeons.”

The difficulties were overcome by dedicated teams of architects, craftsmen, historians and more. Today St. Pancras International is known as "The Gateway to London." It's now the home of Britain's Eurostar Terminal, the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel (opening May 2011) and St. Pancras Chambers, luxury apartments that, according to press materials, have "become the most stylish address in London." Not bad for a place that was threatened with demolition twice over the past decades. "Sleeping Beauty Awakens," is a headline typical of the ones you might come across while reading about St. Pancras' successful return to London life.

Might the St. Pancras fairytale inspire decision makers in Long Island? Compared to the restoration in London, saving St. Paul's seems fairly straightforward. The building is in ideal condition, ready to be re-purposed into a source of revenue for the city even as it continues to be a source of civic pride for Garden City residents.

I first read about the danger St. Paul's faces in ScoutNY.com. The author of the blog post closed with the following message. I respectfully reprint it here because it says it all:

"When the magnificent Pennsylvania Station was torn down in New York City, the following was written in a NY Times editorial:

“Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves…We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture.

“And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

If you feel strongly about the preservation of St. Paul’s, the public comment period is ongoing until September 30, and your voice could make a difference! Send an email to mayor@gardencityny.net with your comments.

Note: I participated in the re-branding effort for the St. Pancras property on behalf of Renaissance Hotels.