The Poe House Rules

Historic preservationists have worked out a deal with New York University Law School concerning the former residence of Edgar Allen Poe that lies one block south of Washington Square in Greenwich Village. The agreement is not, alas, being made public, but you can read the preservationists’ summary of it here and a story about it from today’s New York Times here. Poe lived in the house in 1845 and 1846 and probably began writing “The Cask of Amontillado” while residing there. Chatterbox lived in the house during the summer of 1979 and definitely wrote an earnest condemnation of execution by lethal injection, replete with quotations from Albert Camus, while residing there. (The article was written for, but, mercifully, never published in, The Nation, where Chatterbox was an intern at the time.) Poe House was by then a fraternity house for the NYU chapter of Psi Upsilon. After that, the building housed offices for law school faculty, and after that, NYU made plans to demolish it so that it could put up a taller building.

In Chatterbox’s last dispatch about this preservation fight, he noted that a judge had decided against the preservationists and predicted the site would be bulldozed. Three months later, Poe House is still standing, and the preservationists are claiming victory. In fact, though, the building is still set to be bulldozed, and the taller building is still set to go up. The compromise is that the taller building won’t be quite as tall as originally planned and that NYU has pledged to incorporate into it something that resembles the lost Poe House façade (and also the façade of another building that is also set to be demolished).

The Times reports that NYU will “preserve” Poe House’s façade. That isn’t quite right. Reconstruct? That isn’t quite right either, according to Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, the preservation advocacy group that struck the deal. “Original elements of the façade will be utilized to create a distinctive façade that is reflective of the original building,” he told Chatterbox. “It will be something less than a reconstruction but something more than a plaque.” On the plus side, Bankoff said, the new façade won’t include the faux Mediterranean windows and shingles that weren’t there in Poe’s day (but were in Chatterbox’s). According to the summary of the agreement made public by the preservationists, the not-quite-reconstructed façade must be “visually distinctive.” In addition, consultants hired by NYU will work to preserve some elements of the interior (though, in truth, the interior isn’t much to write home about). These may include parts of the staircase (click here and here for views), maybe some molding, maybe some window frames, and perhaps some wooden planks. The interior space will be made available to the public for commemoration of Poe’s life and work.

“We’re as happy as we could be,” says Marilyn Stults, who conducts walking tours through Greenwich Village and was one of the first activists to get involved in the preservation battle. Certainly the height restrictions on NYU’s new building are of some value, and, given NYU’s apparent legal right to do whatever it wishes on the site, concessions of any kind are a pleasant surprise. (Reportedly, much of the credit for making NYU feel guilty about trashing the building goes to the novelist E.L. Doctorow, who teaches at NYU and lobbied NYU’s law school dean rather intensively on the matter.) But in Washington, D.C., where Chatterbox lives, attempts to incorporate row-house facades into modern buildings have not produced encouraging results. The effect tends to be theme-parky at best and visually quite awkward at worst, leaving one wishing that either the preservationists or the developers had won the battle outright.