Thursday, May 08, 2008

Andrew Berman's Letter to the Editor on the Provincetown Playhouse

This is a must-read for anyone trying to put together an op-ed on the Provincetown Playhouse:

To The Editor:

Re "N.Y.U. would drop curtain on O'Neill's Playhouse" (news article, April 29):

The proposal New York University is contemplating to demolish the historic Provincetown Playhouse would be a tragic mistake for the university and for the neighborhood.

The Provincetown Playhouse is one of the most iconic historic sites in all the Village. It is known throughout the country and world for the critical role it has played in the history of the Off-Broadway and alternative theater movement. It is a landmark in every sense of the word except
official designation, although the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and many others have been seeking to remedy that through our proposed South Village Historic District, which includes the site. Last year N.Y.U. agreed to support the designation of the proposed South Village Historic District; demolition of one of its key historic sites would not only damage the proposed district's chances of full adoption, but damage the university's reputation for keeping its word.

When N.Y.U. recently signed the planning principles with members of the Borough President's N.Y.U. Community Task Force, including G.V.S.H.P., it agreed to "prioritize reuse before new development," a principle that could not more clearly apply here. This is actually the first new project N.Y.U. is proposing under the commitments it made in the planning principles; so,
how the university does or does not adhere to the commitments it made will have a huge impact upon how this process is viewed.

By N.Y.U.'s own admission, its proposed new building is somewhat but not much bigger than the current Provincetown Playhouse building. So why demolish at all? N.Y.U. claims this old building (the underlying historic structure is nearly 200 years old) cannot support the kinds of uses it wishes to put in there. They have not substantiated that claim, but let's assume for a moment that they are correct. The building currently houses a theater, offices and residences - uses which it can clearly continue to house, and all uses which N.Y.U. needs. Therefore, any decision to demolish the building because it is not suited to N.Y.U.'s "needs" is not really one of necessity, but actually one of choice.

Further, N.Y.U. claims that because the facade of the building was altered almost 70 years ago, it is no longer a historic building worthy of preservation. Yet, in the 1990s, when N.Y.U. began a renovation of the building (with the same historic facade), it proudly trumpeted the building's history and its pride to posses this great piece of local and national history. Now, the university is choosing the "Poe House" method of historic preservation - demolish a beloved piece of the neighborhood's history, and then try to make up for it by tacking a piece or a facsimile of
it onto the new building. As we've seen, this approach just does not work.

N.Y.U. clearly wants credit for considering a building on this site that is neither as big nor as insensitive in its design as it could be or as many recent N.Y.U. buildings have been. But the loss of a treasured piece of the neighborhood's history is the price we would have to pay, while the
alternative G.V.S.H.P. has been urging - a sensitive reuse or renovation of the building, as the planning principles N.Y.U. agreed to seem to call for - would still allow the university to make very productive use of its property.

Hopefully, N.Y.U. will see the light. I strongly urge anyone who is interested to come to the Community Board 2 Institutions Committee hearing on the issue on Wed., May 28, at 6:30 p.m. (location TBD), to help make the case.

Andrew Berman
Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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Anonymous said...

L, I think all of this P-town history is terrific, but I fear that NYU will use the 1940 renovation to say that none of this matters. So, I'm very interested in post-1940 history, and think that a strong case can be made that what has happened since is a history worth preserving.

I would stand in front of bull-dozers to save the home of The Zoo Story. Albee is the history of our future, and people will want to know about it. Also, I know that the P-town was home to the first show to ever transfer from Off-Off to Off. Home Movies and many shows from P-town's 60's heyday are important history to me. And in only a few decades from now, Vampire Lesbians will hold a simliar place in gay theater history.

So, I ask that if you come across any additional support material on the theater's post-renovation period, I hope that you'll post it up.

Lastly, want you to know that I did exchange a few phone messages with the Dean of Tisch from which I graduated to press this issue as a long-term negative effect on the theater school (whether or not the Law school is the main culprit).

Thanks for all your work and see you on the 28th (one week after the Obies - if there's any opportunities there).

Leonard Jacobs said...

I totally agree. Want to work on this with me? If so, can you contact me directly?

Leonard J.