by: Albert Amateau
April 17, 2002
Despite the fire that raged in 90 West St. for 24 hours on Sept. 11, the landmarked 1907 building designed by Cass Gilbert is structurally sound, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.
"But it's in terrible shape inside," said Andrew Winters, director of design for L.M.D.C. Debris from the World Trade Center, a block from 90 West St. with an intervening parking lot, fell on the north face of the building; the mansard roof was severely damaged and the terra cotta ornamentation on the limestone facade was largely destroyed. The building was vacated on Sept. 11 and remains unoccupied.
Nevertheless, L.M.D.C. heeded the pleas of preservationists and included a proposal calling for restoration of the 23-story building in the preliminary blueprint for the future of Lower Manhattan, making it the only individual structure mentioned in the report.
The owner of the building, FPG 90 West, a subsidiary of Agon, a Dutch insurance company, was in the midst of a $20-million restoration on Sept. 11, according to Michael Gelfand, an architect who worked in the building for Gruzen Samton Associates.
Heather McCracken, Landmarks spokesperson, said Landmarks Chairperson Sherida Paulsen has been consulting with the owner. "They are considering options for restoration and cleaning and whether to rebuild the interior," McCracken said. Still to be decided is whether the building will be restored for commercial use or converted into a residential tower.
The Gruzen firm, with 130 employees, had moved into the third and fourth floors of 90 West St. about nine months before the World Trade Center attack, Gelfand said. "Of course the architecture and history of the building was one of the attractions for us," he said, adding that the firm spent more than $1 million building out its space at 90 West St.
"My office was on the south side and when the north tower was hit, I thought a scaffold had collapsed," said Gelfand, noting that the facade of the building was undergoing restoration at the time. But from the West St. window, he said he saw body parts on the street and a car that appeared to be cut in half. When he got to the north side of the office, Gelfand noticed what turned out to be a section of the north tower's skin with an airplane wheel embedded in it had been projected across both the Trade Center site and the parking lot, landing just in front of the Cedar St. entrance to 90 West St.
Gruzen employees evacuated the building after the second plane struck the south tower. The firm lost almost everything except for some drawings preserved in a fireproof safe and some digital data, Gelfand said. The building began burning after the towers collapsed. The upper floors and the bottom suffered the most damage, Gelfand said. Gruzen is now located at 330 W. 13th St. on a 14-year lease.
The building at 90 West St. between Albany and Cedar Sts. was designed by Gilbert shortly before he designed the Woolworth Building on Broadway. The AIA Guide to New York City says 90 West St. is "increasingly interesting and complex the higher you raise your eyes," It was designed to be seen from the harbor or from the upper floors of adjacent skyscrapers. The colonnaded and mansard-roofed top floors were opened in 1907 as Garret's Restaurant and billed as the "world's highest restaurant," a forerunner of Windows on the World, says the Guide, the latest version of which was published two years ago.
Gilbert, who moved his architectural practice from St. Paul, Minn., to New York City in 1898 designed the U.S. Custom House on Bowling Green, the Broadway Chambers building at 277 Broadway and the U.S. Courthouse at 40 Centre St., which was completed by his son, Cass Gilbert, Jr.