BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Regarded by historians, architects, advocates, electeds, and City agencies alike as a structure of significance and a worthy candidate for landmark consideration, the unassuming property at 128 West 17th Street sits in stasis, no longer used by its owner, the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY).
From 1860 to 1894, the three-story building served as a segregated public school for African Americans and survives today as Manhattan’s only remaining “Colored School.” Immediate action to ensure its long-term structural integrity has become the top priority among its many champions, who note their efforts to shepherd Colored School No. 4 through the lengthy landmarking process may be all for naught, if interior damage from a leaky roof is allowed to continue through a winter’s worth of accumulating H2O, be it in the form of rain, sleet, snow, or hail.
Although it’s been known for quite some time that water runoff from the roof had impacted the interior, the specifics only recently came to light. On December 15, at the behest of NYC Council Member Erik Bottcher, DSNY reps accompanied Bottcher, his staff, and a small group of invited stakeholders as they toured the rooftop and interior of 128 W. 17th St.
In a December 22 letter to DSNY Commissioner Jessica Tisch, and NYC Department of Citywide Administrative Services [DCAS] Commissioner Dawn M. Pinnock, Council Member Bottcher thanked the DSNY for arranging a tour of the building “so we could better understand its current condition.” Among the most concerning matters, noted Bottcher, were the ponding of water on the roof “surrounding what appeared to be a clogged or non-working drain.” Disintegrated roofing material leaving it “unprotected from water infiltration” was also at the root of conditions inside, where water damage was observed on several floors “underneath the portion of the roof with ponding. Additionally, panes of glass were missing from the windows facing the street.”
“Though the building is structurally sound, as evidenced by DSNY’s inspection report and allowing us access to the building, there is significant water damage caused by a failure to mitigate the roof leak,” noted Community Board 4 (CB4) Chelsea Land Use Committee [CLU] Co-Chair Kerry Keenan, in an email statement to Chelsea Community News. Keenan was joined on the tour by CLU member David Holowka, an architect, and Pamela Wolff, a Public Member of the CLU who also serves as president of the preservationist group Save Chelsea.
Also on the tour was author, black New Yorker, licensed NYC tour guide, and preservationist Eric K. Washington, who went public with the building’s unsung history in 2018, having made that discovery during the course of research for his acclaimed biography Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2019). As noted in our report of June 23, 2022, Williams was among the students educated at Colored School No. 4. In November of 2018, our report noted, Washington submitted an RFE (Request for Evaluation) to NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the first step in seeking landmark status.
After years of advocacy, it was Washington’s first time inside the building (as was the case with all non-DSNY reps who attended). Such unrestricted movement, said Washington, “represents a lot of progress (on DSNY’s’ part). This access gives me reason to feel optimistic that they are in good faith moving along [toward allowing for landmark consideration]… I appreciated Erik’s being there. He he was vocalizing, ‘What [repairs] can we see getting done fairly soon.’ ” Washington added that support from Keenan as CLU Co-Chair and CB4 at large (via full board membership approving letters of support) were also key drivers in the maintaining support and momentum for the ultimate goal: New ownership for the building, landmark status, full repairs, and a repurposing of the space in a manner directly related to the many purposes it served, while serving as home to Colored School No. 4.
Reached for comment shortly after the Dec. 15 tour, Sonia Guior, LPC Director of Community and Intergovernmental Affairs, said the LPC has “determined former Colored School No. 4 merits consideration and is currently studying its potential for designation. As the only known surviving former ‘Colored School’ in Manhattan, it is a reminder of the history of racist segregation policies in NYC and has important associations with the Black community in 19th century New York, including significant people who were students, teachers, and administrators there. We continue to work closely with the Department of Sanitation on process and timing for consideration.”
Vincent Gragnani, DSNY Press Secretary, confirmed they’re in discussions with the LPC and the DCAS to “advance the landmarking process and identify a long-term strategy for the structure… We are happy to continue working with the Community Board and local elected officials to move this process forward and celebrate the history of this building as a resource for the community.” On the matter of rendering immediate repair, however, DSNY noted it is “not currently funded to rehabilitate it, and we have a long list of dire facilities needs that we need to prioritize, with the safety of our workforce at the forefront.”
Keenan’s statement, which predates that commentary from DSNY, said CB4 “fully expects DSNY to take immediate action to stop further damage. It is unacceptable to let any building fall into disrepair through neglect, much less a building with such cultural and historic significance to Chelsea and African American history… DSNY must act now to protect this building. And LPC has a mandate and moral obligation to landmark this culturally significant building.”
Advocates are perpexed as to why DSNY, which has repeatedly stated it’s amenable to having the property change hands, hasn’t made short-term, inexpensive gestures of responsible stewardship, such as covering broken windows with plastic, clearing the single roof drain (whose backup causes the ponding), and installing temporary roof tarring.
Toward the end of his December 22 letter, Bottcher wrote, “I’m again requesting that DSNY and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services take immediate action to ensure that 128 West 17th Street is protected from the elements, especially water entering through the roof.”
Chelsea Community News will continue to follow this story as it develops.
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