Opinion

Historic Chelsea Seminary Building to Become Generic Condo

At left, the condo design (image via dnainfo.com), at right, the Seminary (image via wikipedia.org)

The General Theological Seminary in Chelsea (located on Ninth Ave between 20th and 21st Street) was established in 1817 and remained a holdout of patrician architecture for almost 2 centuries. Now, to relieve its mounting debt, the seminary is selling off buildings and land to luxury developers. The designs for the latest redevelopment were just released by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, and guess what? They look terrifyingly bland.

DNAInfo reports on the design unveiling,

Brodsky’s lead architect, John H. Beyer of Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, revealed preliminary plans Wednesday night for two properties — a portion of the schoolyard now used as a tennis court, and the historic West Building — to Community Board 4’s landmarks committee.

The new development follows up on Chelsea Enclave, an earlier commercial redevelopment that turned the seminary’s Sherrill Hall on Ninth Avenue into a combination of residencies and retail. The building was completed in 2010.

At top, the Seminary in 1890, at bottom, the 2010 Chelsea Enclave (images via wikipedia.org)

“The idea is to use contemporary touches while we pick up significant historical gestures,” Beyer says of the design. It’s a nice sentiment, but looking at the renderings (seen at top), it’s less a historicizing composition than a gloss of contemporary condo style, not dissimilar to what we’re seeing rise in Williamsburg, minus the faux woodgrain and metal touches. A familiar flat brick facade on the seminary condo gives way to a bubbling series of porches and decks on upper floors that signify dollar signs rather than aesthetic choices, all topped off by floor to ceiling glass-walled penthouses. I guess that’s the “contemporary touch.”

Monk cells would totally be nicer with loft-style windows, I do agree. The major concession that the design for the new building gives to fitting in is its lower composition of vertical rectangle windows set in pairs into the facade, matching up with the older constructions in its background. Oh yeah, and there’s also a random chimney sticking up from the condo, a visual element that’s remarkably evocative of the seminary’s style, just abstracted: old kitsch on new pastiche. It’s almost a Pop art parody.

In a 2007 article, the New York Times reported that along with the land sales and redevelopment, the seminary is taking care to renovate its remaining buildings to stand up to modern building codes and standards of energy efficiency: the complex is seeking to go green. It’s great that the organization retains such sensitivity, but I wish that even with the sale of the land away from the seminary, architects could attempt to go for a more contextually aware approach.

Is there some rule now that luxury developments all have to have the same large, modular plate glass windows? Does no one appreciate Gothic arches any more? Can’t we just fake a little historical authenticity? The new Desmond Tutu Center, built by the seminary in 2007, meshes quite a bit better with the architectural context. Of course, these battles have been fought time and time again, and aesthetic subtlety usually goes out the window in favor of the same desirable lux amenities. Oh well. There goes the neighborhood.

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