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St. Anywhere

It’s impossible to legislate weirdness, which is a sad thing for the city’s architectural heritage.

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When St. Vincent’s hospital finally swings a wrecking ball at the O’Toole Building—the endearingly awkward, formerly white, three-layered stack with tear-off perforations and protruding upper floors on Seventh Avenue and West 12th Street—it will be for the greater good of Greenwich Village. The medical tower that rises in its place will serve the community and fortify the hospital’s tottering finances.

But this improvement comes at the cost of eccentricity. Albert Ledner designed the slightly goofy exemplar of sixties modernism as the headquarters of a now-defunct National Maritime Union. (That’s how obsolete the building has become: It evokes a time when Manhattan was still a seaman’s base and an organized-labor town.) Part of the structure’s charm is its oddness, which seems to increase with age. As block after Manhattan block acquired a high-gloss sameness, the “overbite building,” as it is known, has remained a folly, one of those defiantly impractical structures that somehow survived in this city’s rugged real-estate ecology. Until now.

In theory, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which green-lighted the proposal last week, could have demanded a new building of equally powerful character. In practice, no agency has the authority or inclination to mandate weirdness. The commission exists to safeguard the city’s status quo and tolerate incremental change. Demanding individuality lies beyond its purview. Hospitals depend on standardization, efficiency, and routine, and to achieve this, St. Vincent’s hired Pei Cobb Freed, which doesn’t do whimsy.

And so the corner’s next occupant will be a tastefully bland, well-tailored facility—the sort of comfortingly impersonal environment meant to minimize the awfulness of a stay there. Preservationists acknowledged the need for St. Vincent’s to expand, but decried the loss of a fine work of architecture (though the O’Toole Building isn’t really that fine), the violation of the low-slung skyline (which is not really that low), and the transformation of the neighborhood (which shed its bohemian attitude long ago). The hospital duly whittled down the height and softened the graceless ribbon windows with terra-cotta louvers. The new building will do its best to look inconspicuous, though there’s a limit to how much a thickset medical tower can blend into a historic district. The effort is beside the point in any case. The site needs character, which St. Vincent’s abhors.

Personality is endangered in New York architecture, though not totally extinct. Even as the mid-century misfits fade away—Edward Durrell Stone’s 2 Columbus Circle; now the O’Toole—an occasional new one arrives. Cooper Union’s still-unfinished academic center, designed by Morphosis, will never look demure. The white-glass schooner that Frank Gehry designed as headquarters for InterActiveCorp is hardly self-effacing, either. But imagine a few decades from now, if IAC should go the way of the National Maritime Union and the next owner chafes at the strangely shaped and odd-size offices; then Gehry’s flourish may turn into one more disposable trace of New York weirdness, scrapped to make way for something depressingly normal.

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