Developers Get Green Light to Modernize Historic Clock

New York City acquired the building at 346 Broadway in 1968, using it for government offices and courtrooms, with an art gallery, performance area and a public-service radio station on the bottom floor.

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – Sounding the death knell for one of the world’s last mechanical clocks, New York’s highest court signed off Thursday on a plan to electrify a timepiece in the former headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Co.

The former New York Life Insurance Company building at 346 Broadway was built between 1894 and 1899 by the architecture firm McKim, Mead & White.

The electrification plan is part of renovations that have been underway at 346 Broadway since the Civic Center Community Group Broadway LLC paid $145 million to buy the Lower Manhattan building in December 2013.

Modeled on an Italian Renaissance palazzo, the 13-story structure built in the 1890s includes 5,000-pound bell at the top of a spiral staircase that must be wound by hand every week to ring. 

The only other clock in the world like that is London’s Big Ben.

Though lower courts ruled twice that developers had to leave the clock alone, the New York Court of Appeals reversed 4-2 Thursday.

Praising the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for its thorough process of approval, Judge Michael Garcia wrote for the majority that the commission was “well within its discretion” to approve clock electrification.

Garcia emphasized that the commission’s approval process for historic buildings undergoing renovations “presumes change, sometimes dramatic change.”

While the 1965 Landmarks Preservation Law encourages private owners to preserve qualifying properties, Garcia said the law was also designed to “strengthen the economy of the city,” and gives the commission broad discretion.

Judge Leslie Stein, one of three who concurred today in Garcia’s opinion, noted last month at oral arguments that “people won’t buy these properties” if the commission imposes too many restrictions on developers. 

Judge Jenny Rivera wrote in dissent, however, that the commission “exceeded its authority.”

“Notwithstanding the historical significance of the clock to the City, the LPC approved the building owner’s request to convert this interior landmark into a luxury apartment,” Rivera wrote.

“The former is a rare horological masterpiece; the latter is a typical, now commonplace, development for the wealthy by the wealthy. Although the LPC has great latitude to decide whether to approve an alteration to an interior landmark, it cannot approve an alteration that, by its very nature, amounts to a de facto rescission of a landmark designation.”

The mechanical clock in the former New York Life Insurance Company Building at 346 Broadway is one of the last in the world that must be wound every week to sound the hours.

Developers anticipate that residents will be able to move into condos being built at the property later this year. Units are said to range from about $1.4 million to more than $20 million for the penthouse.

New York City acquired the building in 1968, using it for government offices and courtrooms, with an art gallery, performance area and a public-service radio station on the bottom floor.

When the clock itself fell into disrepair, city employees volunteered to restore it, wind it weekly, and even give public tours. One of those employees, Marvin Schneider, was appointed in 1992 as the city clock master.

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