Cemetery officials negotiating property purchase next door to greenhouse for visitors center
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Green-Wood Cemetery wants to demolish one-third of the landmarked Weir Greenhouse before restoring the rest of it – and surrounding it with a big new building for a visitors center.
Tuesday, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission said Not so fast.
“Destroying the building to 'save' it can't be countenanced,” Commission Chairman Robert Tierney said at a hearing in Lower Manhattan.
He instructed the project team for the proposed greenhouse makeover to work with the preservation agency's staff and find a solution for facilitating the restoration of the glass greenhouse structure without destroying two brick and frame buildings attached to it.
The single-story structures date back to the time of the glass plant house's 1895 construction – and are considered part of the historic fabric of the property, which was designated a city landmark in 1982.
The historic greenhouse at 750 Fifth Ave. is right across the street from the main gates of Green-Wood – an apt spot for a welcome center for the famed boneyard, which has graves of notables from composer Leonard Bernstein to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It plays host to 250,000 visitors per year but has no visitors center.
Architect Page Cowley revealed at the hearing that Green-Wood execs are negotiating with the owners of Monumental Masons, whose property is next door to the greenhouse, to buy “half a lot” to construct the new visitors center.
She didn't have any architectural renderings to present, just a line drawing known as a massing diagram, for which Tierney chided her, saying the agency doesn't customarily approve a demolition without seeing designs for what would be built in its place.
The massing diagram showed a three-story structure looming over the greenhouse on two sides.
The owner of Monumental Masons at 242 25th St., reached after the hearing, said the portion of his property that Green-Wood is trying to buy is a lawn with sample headstones on it.
John Hakola said he doesn't have a broker assisting him in the sale process. “We're doing this privately,” he said before declining to answer further questions.
It's unclear where the money would come from to purchase Hakola's property. Green-Wood has received $2.5 million of funding for the greenhouse project, marketing executive Linda Alpert said at the hearing – but it is meant to be used for preservation.
That preservation money has a deadline attached – the fix-up is supposed to be finished by June 2015.
“We are very nervous,” she said. “Funding is at risk if we do not begin the project.”
The greenhouse is in bad shape after storms, she stressed.
After the hearing, Alpert didn't answer the question of where the money would come from to buy Hakola's property. Later, cemetery spokeswoman Colleen Roche issued a written statement to answer the question of why Green-Wood has not yet begun restoring the fragile greenhouse – which it purchased in 2012 for $1.625 million.
“In a project as complicated, sensitive and time-consuming as the rehabilitation of the Weir Greenhouse, every care and caution must be taken before actual construction begins,” the statement said.
“Painstaking efforts have already been expended to identify the original construction materials and possible replacement sources. Extensive testing has also been done.”
When Green-Wood bought the decaying but gorgeous greenhouse with its distinctive octagonal dome, there was no public mention of a need to buy additional property to construct a big new building on its flanks.
The greenhouse holds a special place in the city's architectural history.
“The Weir Greenhouse is among the rarest of 19th Century survivors; it is the only Victorian commercial greenhouse known to be extant in New York City,” its landmark designation documentation says.
Preservationists urged commissioners not to allow the destruction of the two non-glass buildings – though Green-Wood's engineer said doing so would facilitate greenhouse repairs.
“Demolition is forever,” said Nadezhda Williams of the Historic Districts Council.
After the hearing, Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City spoke of her dismay about the new building Green-Wood intends to construct – and the fact that renovation of the beloved greenhouse hasn't begun.
“I was absolutely shocked by the magnitude of the plan, and their failure to move promptly on necessary repairs,” she said.