Landmark Activists Stumble at Hearing on NYC Clocktower

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – In a hearing over the preservation of a revered mechanical clock tower, several judges on New York’s high court worried Wednesday that “too many restrictions” could scare developers away from historic properties.  

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 former New York Life Insurance Company Building at 346 Broadway was built between 1894 and 1899 by the architecture firm McKim, Mead & White. In 2013 the city sold the property, now known as 108 Leonard, for $145 million to Civic Center Community Group Broadway LLC.

Within the 13-story building is an enclosure of glass and wood that houses a mechanical clock.

The clock, built sometime after 1894, is considered the largest of its kind in the world. In 1989 the city’s landmark commission designated it an interior landmark, noting the “special character” and “special historical and aesthetic interest” of the spiral staircase and mechanical clock.

Activists raised alarm after Civic Center announced plans to disconnect the mechanism — which some say would permanently damage the clock — and close off public access to the tower.

In arguments Wednesday before the New York Court of Appeals, attorney James Rouhandeh, who represented the developer, said it would be unfair for the city landmarks commission to tell property owners exactly how to keep up their interior landmarks and force them to allow strangers into the property.

“This is worse than eminent domain,” he told the high court.

Several judges questioned the limits of what the commission could force a developer to do regarding such interior landmarks.

Judge Michael Garcia wondered whether the commission has the authority to force the developer to wind the clock if, for example, they ran out of money and had to board up the building.

Michael Hiller, an attorney for the preservation organization Save America’s Clocks, said statutes on the books already allow developers facing hardship to avoid certain restrictions on landmark preservation. Hiller also noted how much Civic Center paid for the property knowing about the clock.

Judge Leslie Stein on the other hand noted that, if the commission imposes too many restrictions on developers, “people won’t buy these properties.”

Hiller said the landmarks commission did not properly approve the developer’s certificate, noting that nearly all the commissioners wanted the clock to remain mechanical but had been given incorrect advice from the city’s law department.

“That’s where the wheels came off during the process,” he said. 

Garcia asked what the commission could do in the face of inaccurate legal advice.

“They had the power to require that the tower remained open,” Hiller said, adding the commission also could have forced the developer not to electrify the clock, as it had made similar pronouncements in previous historical preservation cases. “They could do it, but they didn’t do it in this case.”

An attorney for the city, Diana Lawless, claimed the commission’s approval process was sound, and claimed the commission only has so much sway to instruct owners on exactly how to maintain a landmarked feature.

“The commission does not look at how the clock itself is going to operate,” Lawless said. “We can’t tell you how to keep your lights on.”

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.

After the building was sold in 2013, Civic Center allowed the landmarks commission to periodically inspect the tower, leaving the exterior clock unchanged. Within a year, however, the developer changed its tune, submitting plans to convert the clocktower into a triplex private apartment, cut off public access, disconnect the clock, and convert it to electric.

The landmarks commission found it had no authority to stop the plans, but local activists and businesses sued and halted the conversion.

Lower courts annulled the work order, finding that the commission did have authority to require the owner to keep the clock running using mechanical parts.

In 2017, a New York State appellate court upheld that ruling, finding that the city’s landmarks commission improperly approved plans to electrify the clock.

Writing for a 3-2 panel in Manhattan, Judge Ellen Gesmer called the decision to approve the clock conversion “both irrational and affected by an error of law.”

Modeled on an Italian Renaissance palazzo, the 13-story building at 346 Broadway was built for the New York Life Insurance Company at the turn of the 19th century.

The 5,000-pound bell hanging at the top of the building above a spiral staircase has struck the hours in Lower Manhattan for more than 100 years, but it is one of the last remaining clocks in the world that must be wound by hand every week to do so.

In his arguments, Rouhandeh claimed that allowing people to tour the clocktower would actually harm the delicate and aged mechanism. “People traipsing around that space … may actually harm the clock,” he said.

He also argued that too much emphasis is being placed on the word “use” in terms of whether the public can view and tour the interior clocktower.

“Use does not mean public access,” he said, noting that if that were the case every door and window in a landmarked building would require public access.

Rouhandeh assured the panel of judges that “the clock will be used … in a common sense,” even if it is unplugged and electrified, and nobody is allowed inside the tower to view the cogs, gears, and other mechanisms.

The developers anticipate residents will be able to move into the renovated condos later this year. Units are said to range from about $1.4 million to more than $20 million for the penthouse.

In March 2018 a two-alarm fire broke out at the building, resulting in several injuries to responding firefighters and damage to the building. The clock was not damaged in the fire.

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