Alexandra Lange | Essays

Welcome Back, Overbite

Brochure from the opening of the Curran (more recently O'Toole) Building, 1964 (via Streetscapes)

A rare piece of good news from the modernist preservation wars: the Overbite lives! As Matt Chaban wrote in the New York Observer this week:

Many a preservationist lamented the demise of the Village’s O’Toole Building, the old National Maritime Union headquarters more commonly known as the Overbite Building for its unusual facade. After a three-year fight at the landmarks and city planning commissions, St. Vincent’s won begrudging approval to tear down the modernist structure and replace it with a new 21-story hospital tower.

When St. Vincent’s went bankrupt (the story was not a happy ending for everyone), its development partner, Rudin Management, turned to North Shore/LIJ to keep its multimillion dollar condo plan on the former hospital campus alive. Instead of building a new hospital—which never would have passed landmarks—North Shore/LIJ came up with a plan to repurpose the O’Toole Building, which won unanimous approval from the commission today.

In other words, even though the developer and previous hospital partner argued they couldn't do anything with the building, faced with the current economic climate and opposition from the city and community, they found that, incredibly, they could. Remember this the next time a developer cries about how inability to change a landmark renders their investment moot. Why did you buy it, then?

In my forthcoming book, I quote a spirited defense of the O'Toole Building by Justin Davidson in New York Magazine. It's not beautiful, it's not functional, it's not by someone famous (though Albert C. Ledner's other works are having a fascinating second life. What it does have is personality.
When St. Vincent’s hospital finally swings a wrecking ball at the O’Toole Building—the endearingly awkward, formerly white, three-layered stack with tear-off perforations and protruding upper floors on Seventh Avenue and West 12th Street—it will be for the greater good of Greenwich Village. The medical tower that rises in its place will serve the community and fortify the hospital’s tottering finances.

But this improvement comes at the cost of eccentricity. Albert Ledner designed the slightly goofy exemplar of sixties modernism as the headquarters of a now-defunct National Maritime Union. (That’s how obsolete the building has become: It evokes a time when Manhattan was still a seaman’s base and an organized-labor town.) Part of the structure’s charm is its oddness, which seems to increase with age. As block after Manhattan block acquired a high-gloss sameness, the “overbite building,” as it is known, has remained a folly, one of those defiantly impractical structures that somehow survived in this city’s rugged real-estate ecology. Until now.

He sees Ledner's scallops as a fine example of eccentricity, an artistic quality now in decline in New York. In arguing for the preservation of a quirky, unlovely example of 1960s style, he broadens the criteria for what we ought to preserve in general. His piece, "St. Anywhere," now reads as a reasoned riposte to the excessive anti-preservation rhetoric recently on view at "Cronocaos."

Maybe living with the O'Toole Building was easier because the invisible interiors didn't have to be part of the mix. It is ironic that the Overbite lives while Manufacturers Hanover Trust has been gutted. I don't like to pit my modernists against each other, but I would pick MHT over the O'Toole Building in a heartbeat. A judgement against the owners would be a Pyrrhic victory, since I can't see how the crystal lantern can be put back together again.

Posted in: Architecture, Social Good

Comments [2]

My dermatologist is still in this building. I was in it 3 weeks ago and it would benefit from a gutting and interior makeover. There will never be more windows, though. Maybe it could be a museum, like the lollipop building.

I adore the O'Toole Building for its sheer oddness. The MHT may be the more beautiful and culturally valuable of the two but I'd argue that the ungainly O'Toole is more likely to surprise and inspire delight in passersby.

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