The Villager: Trying to keep a mural from becoming a memory

November 16, 2017

By: Dusica Sue Malesevic
November 16, 2017

Preservationists, City Councilmember Corey Johnson’s Office and a developer are looking to conserve a piece of 1950s New York: Julien Binford’s mural at a former bank building on the corner of W. 14th St. and Sixth Ave.

Binford’s mural — “A Memory of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue” — graces the lobby of a now-closed HSBC branch, according to Web sites GothamToGo and New York Songlines. Binford painted the mural in 1954 for what was then the Greenwich Savings Bank, according to New York Songlines.

Built in 1953, the one-story commercial building at 101 W. 14th St. — also known as 531 Sixth Ave. — is slated for demolition, according to the project developer, Gemini Rosemont, and City records show the building was sold in April for $42.4 million.

Brian Ferrier, Gemini Rosemont’s vice president of development, said a timetable has not been set for demolition. The developer is still in the design phase, he said, adding that, in general, the project will include retail space and residential condos.

On the mural, Ferrier said, “We’re investigating a couple different options.”

Andrew Cronson, a junior at New York University, would pass by the vacant building on his way from class to Penn Station to catch a train back to Long Island.

“Peering in through the windows, the interior was mostly gutted, but this 150-foot mural stood out prominently among the gritty rubble and dust,” Cronson said, noting that the building was designed by Halsey, McCormack & Helmer.

In late October, Cronson said he reached out to a number of advocacy groups, including Laurence Frommer of Save Chelsea.

“We think it’s significant artwork,” Frommer said. “It reflects the history of the area. It seems to capture the glory days of Sixth Ave.”

Save Chelsea contacted Johnson’s office. Erik Bottcher, the councilmember’s chief of staff, said the developer has been asking galleries if they were interested in the mural, but got no takers, so the developer is, in fact, considering preserving and keeping the mural.

Groncki, also of Save Chelsea, also suggested to Johnson’s office that Jamestown, the owner of the Chelsea Market building, might be interested in taking the mural, Bottcher said. Bottcher has been in touch with the investment and management company, but, as of now, Jamestown is “waiting in the wings,” he said.

Jamestown declined to comment.

Frommer of Save Chelsea said that whoever takes the mural, he hopes that “it is done properly with the right conservation mindset,” and preserved “in perpetuity.”

Binford was born in Virginia in 1908, and died shy of his 89th birthday. He created artwork in both Virginia and New York, and “about 37 paintings for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project” between 1938 and 1940, according to a 2015 Richmond Times-Dispatch article.

Cronson said the mural at the former bank “depicts a jovial street scene in panoramic form of what this area would have looked like in the late 1800s, back when there was an elevated train and riders used horses as a mode of transportation.”

“It would be a tragedy if this mural is demolished,” Johnson said in an e-mail statement. “Losing it would really be losing a piece of our history. We are working frantically to find a new home for it. We hope to succeed at this in the next few days.”

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