Photo: David Sundberg/Esto
In the future, all fine public buildings will be private, and those opulent old interiors once designed to dazzle the masses will be hidden away. In too many cases this is already happening, a situation funded by taxpayers whose money is used to exclude them. The Battery Maritime Building, a lovely relic of the days when waterways were still at the heart of New York’s transportation system, has spent decades like a moribund shell. Eventually, the city turned over its ownership to a private development team and, thanks in part to $33 million in federal historic preservation tax credits and the care of architectural firm Marvel, the building was resurrected under the name of Casa Cipriani, with a hotel, restaurant, spa, event space and private club under one roof. The reopening completes the leisure loop that winds from the Battery Park City esplanade around the tip of Manhattan to the new shopping and dining center at Pier 17.
Cipriani, the global hospitality conglomerate that began with Harry’s Bar in Venice, sees itself as a steward of historic buildings. His New York party spaces include the ornate banking hall of the Merchants’ Exchange at 55 Wall Street and the lobby of the Cunard Building at 25 Wall Street, a lavishly illustrated cathedral of ocean travel. These iconic interiors are mostly off-limits to the public. Parts of the Battery Maritime Building are open — some in practice, like the no-frills waiting room and the Governors Island ferry slides, others only in theory, like the 10,000-square-foot ballroom on the second floor. stage. Just nod to the liveried doorman as you enter the lobby, let him know he can’t help you right now, thank you, and head up the new steel staircase. When not in use, it will look tall and empty, with tall cast-iron columns topped with fierce-looking fish. If a charity party or dinner is in the works, you will be advised to try again another time.
The original 1909 building was designed as the eastern end of a long, seven-pronged civic facility that included the Whitehall Terminal (the Manhattan end of the Staten Island Ferry) and a central section that was never built. Like many pieces of public infrastructure from that era, it’s better than needed. Although the building served as a machine to transport commuters from the mainland to the port and back several times an hour, the Walker and Morris company gave it efficiency and grace. The side facing the city has a copper roof over a double-height loggia with vaults clad in Guastavino tiles and green-painted columns. Passengers arriving by water approach a trio of shallow arches, edged in rose and separated by pilasters that rise into turrets topped with cupolas. The ensemble is a marvel of Beaux-Arts metalwork – zinc, copper, rolled steel and cast iron – sitting on wooden stakes and hovering above the water. It’s a tribute to the early 20th century ideal that every ordinary New Yorker, whether commuting to work, learning to read, riding a train or picking up the mail, deserves a slice of greatness. Like Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and many other public buildings of the day, it cost more than necessary and repaid that investment in dignity and civic pride.
For a moment. When it opened, the ferry service was both at its peak and at its peak. Crowds of New Yorkers converged here, following wires that connected the city’s silver furnace and fish market to its industrial waterfront and coastal suburbs. Within about two decades, however, bridges, automobiles, tunnels, and subway lines crossing the river rendered the terminal obsolete, and the building spent decades rotting and rusting. He acquired a few tumor storage sheds and unsightly coatings. The tunnel from West Street to FDR Drive engulfed the main plaza, cutting off the building from the financial district.
In the early 2000s, the city hired Jan Hird Pokorny Architects to perform a $58 million renovation of the exterior, which left the building with a sleek, vacant and useless shell except for the corner that served ( and still serves) as a portal to Governors Island. At various points, it was to become a cultural center, then a market. David Byrne transformed the desolate space into a massive organ-like instrument. A plan to turn it into a hotel got all the necessary approvals, then slammed into the 2008 financial crisis.
After this history of false starts and failures, the resurrection of the Battery Maritime Building as part of Ciprianiworld is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the building looks beautiful, weatherproof and alive again. On the other, it’s still mostly off limits, a no-go zone of luxury rather than neglect. That’s part of the way private property historic preservation works in this country: The federal government gives tax credits for about 1,200 renovation projects a year, as long as they’re certified historic structures and that they follow a strict set of rehabilitation guidelines. At the Battery Maritime Building, Marvel architects had to shuttle between clients, with a brand and results to protect, and government officials who enforce the rules. Or, to put it another way, they navigated between two commandments: do what you must and Do what you can get away with.
Marvel is good at delicate negotiations and complicated rescue. They donned all the necessities for safety and comfort – a sprinkler system, elevators, flood wiring, fire doors, stairs, etc. – through a spare and squeaky structure. Farmhouses with sexy curves come to life. A decorative glass ceiling under the skylight of the Great Hall (long gone but preserved in the photographs) has been reconstructed. A building that was teetering precariously above the water again seems to be here to stay.
Yet the double-edged nature of the development is evident in every detail. The dominant taste is that of Cipriani: theatrical, glittery and expensive. The hotel needed more square footage, so the architects tore down a 1950s rooftop shed and replaced it with a three-story glass box, alleviating that intrusion by restoring some of the original roof details that had been stripped away over time: a wooden pergola and a set of four open turrets with domes and spires and all the Beaux-Arts trimmings. The rivets are fake and the structures are fiberglass, but the only people who will see them up close belong to Club Cipriani or meet members for drinks at the penthouse bar.
It’s nice up there. On a winter afternoon visit, the sun creeps into the penthouse bar for a few last minutes of daylight before heading west. The harbor lights up, the Statue of Liberty poses, backlit against a crimson wash, and you feel yourself stepping over the seam between city and sea. The light picks up the nautical detail; decorative rivets cast rows of tiny shadows. The interiors, signed Thierry Despont, evoke an Art Deco liner, with a refined version of Normandy the luxury that flows from the elevators to the cabins to the members-only jazz bar. Finally, a public building has been returned to the public – well, to those who are invited to join, or who can swoop in for a $1,000-a-night hotel room.