On Landmark Designation Day, $6 Million Pledged to Preserve Chelsea’s (Former) Colored School No. 4  

May 23, 2023: L to R: Tom Lunke, Kerry Keenan, Sally Greenspan, Council Member Erik Bottcher, Eric K. Washington, Mayor Eric Adams, Judy Klein, Paul Groncki, and Pamela Wolff gather in front of the building just prior to the LPC’s vote in favor of landmark designation. | Photo by Max Giuliani

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | It may not be the most unusual watch party in the history of livestreaming—but it was an undeniably meta sight to see, when members of a movement to bestow protected status on an unassuming Chelsea building gathered in front of the property on the morning of Tuesday, May 23. There, the group witnessed the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designate 128 West 17th Street as an individual landmark. This, after NYC Mayor Eric Adams paid a visit to announce $6 million in reparative funding for the structure that served as a segregated school for African Americans from the Civil War to post-Reconstruction years of 1860-1894.

Landmark advocates watch the LPC meeting livestreaming on YouTube while situated outside the building that’s about to be landmarked. | Photo by Pamela Wolff

“It was really exciting, because we stood there with our smartphones out, watching the meeting [available to view by clicking here]. We were in a huddle, as if leaning over a fire, just watching the proceedings, very conscious that we were standing in front of the school,” said indefatigable landmarking advocate Eric K. Washington, who recalled that members of the viewing party “were kind of delightfully impatient—and then [LPC Chair Sarah Carroll] asked somebody to make a motion to designate. And then it happened, and there was a lot of hugging.”

The unanimous vote, cast by eight LPC officials, caps five years of investigation, testimony, and advocacy during which electeds, City departments, preservationists, architects, private citizens, and community groups came to collectively champion the landmarking cause.

“(Former) Colored School No. 4 represents a difficult, and often overlooked, period in our city’s history,” said Carroll, in a May 23 press release sent by the Mayor’s Press Office (click here to read it). Noting this particular landmarking was a harbinger of things to come, Carroll vowed, “With today’s vote, LPC reaffirms its commitment to ensuring diversity in its designations as part of our equity framework, and to the importance of preserving the sites that tell the complete, and sometimes challenging, story of our city.”

That the school’s story came to the attention of the LPC and the greater public in the first place is a story unto itself—one Chelsea Community News has told here, here, and here. To reiterate, right here, in brief: During the course of research for his 2019 biography, Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, Eric K. Washington discovered Williams had matriculated through Colored School No. 4. With this fact and further research in hand, he submitted a 2018 Request for Evaluation (RFE) to the LPC—the first step in a years-long, delayed-by-COVID process that concluded with May 23’s vote.

L to R, foreground: NYC Council Member Erik Bottcher looks on as NYC Mayor Eric Adams accepts a copy of the book that started it all, from Eric K. Washington, the biographer whose research linked his topic to (Former) Colored School No. 4. | Photo by Pamela Wolff

Minutes before that vote (as they’ve done at prior meetings), the LPC acknowledged the essential contributions of Washington toward their investigation of the West 17th Street property—and they also took the occasion to note that a petition initiated by Washington in support of landmarking had garnered 2,852 signatures.

Such acknowledgement made for a convivial atmosphere among Washington and the longstanding allies who joined him outside the building on Tuesday morning—an event that Pamela Wolff, attending as a representative of the preservationist group Save Chelsea, noted “was orchestrated by City Council Member Erik Bottcher, whose efforts were central to the success of the landmarking, and instrumental in achieving a commitment by Mayor Adams of $6 million to preserve the building for future use. That use will be a great topic for public discussion.”

Attending the event were a number of Chelsea residents who had a hand in bringing the effort to fruition, including Kerry Keenan, co-chair of CB4’s Chelsea Land Use Committee; Paul Groncki, secretary/treasurer of the 100 W. 16th St. Block Association; Judy Klein, the building’s nearest neighbor; and Sally Greenspan, president of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations.

Mayor Adams, recalled Wolff, “spent about half an hour with us, expressed interest in learning about the school, and was attentive to Eric Washington’s descriptions.” Wolff noted regret that the group did not get a chance to view the building’s interior, as they did in December of 2022, when reps from the building’s current owner—the NYC Department of Sanitation—opened the doors to Bottcher, CB4, and others (click here to read our account of that tour). “Too bad,” said Wolff, of Tuesday morning’s lack of entry. “It was a missed opportunity for the mayor to see first-hand the ongoing damage from the unchecked torrent of water that pours through the structure every time it rains.”

L to R: NYC Council Member Erik Bottcher and NYC Mayor Eric Adams. | Photo by Pamela Wolff

Adams did manage to make his mark during the visit, formally announcing the funding to the group. In a press release sent later in the day, Adam said, “As the second Black mayor in New York City history, the significance of this landmark designation is not lost on me, and I am proud we are investing $6 million to rehabilitate (Former) Colored School No. 4 so that this painful, yet important, piece of history is preserved.”

In that same release, Council Member Bottcher said, “Saving this building has been one of the Chelsea community’s top priorities, and I want to thank Mayor Adams for hearing us out and coming through with this critical investment. This $6 million capital infusion will repair the roof and protect the building from the water infiltration that has been causing deterioration. Landmark designation will ensure that the building will be protected from demolition or significant alterations, preserving its architectural features and historic character for future generations. The rehabilitation of Former Colored School No. 4 is a testament to our commitment to remembering and celebrating the Black students and educators who struggled for their right to an education in Manhattan.”

With the arduous half-decade task of landmark designation in the rear view mirror, the public discussion now shifts—as Wolff intimated, to the matters of ownership and use. In a Tuesday afternoon email to his subscribers, Council Member Bottcher vowed, “Going forward, we will work to ensure that the building becomes a public asset that serves the cause of civil rights.”Asked how he sees the building’s future, Washington described it as “decidedly undecided,” at least for now. “There’s a determined ambition for it, but no plan,” he noted. Asked what the ambition is, Washington recalled how Mayor Adams posed that very question to Bottcher on Tuesday morning. Without hesitation the Council Member deferred to Washington, allowing the man who went public with the building’s history to be a voice for its potential future use.

Left to their own devices… watching the LPC proceeding as the landarking of 128 W. 17th St. unfolds in real time. | Photo by Pamela Wolff

“People would like to see it converted to a cultural center,” said Washington, “sort of like a lyceum that has an educational and exhibition component. I think it would be great to have a full, functioning kitchen as a teaching tool, and also have an audio-visual component so you could host podcasts. And you have a roof that has potential to serve as a garden… This would be a boon for the neighborhood. It’s a highly trafficked street, not just for locals but for visitors. And now there’s a chance for this to be a place to experience and teach about the African American presence in New York City’s 400 years of existence.”

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