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New York Times: Trying to Save a 1950s Mural of 1800s Chelsea From Demolition

November 22, 2017

By: Peter Libbey
November 22, 2017

The battle is on to prevent a mural depicting New York City’s past from becoming history.

Julien Binford’s 1954 “A Memory of 14th Street and 6th Avenue,” a 110-foot-long canvas painting of the intersection during the late 19th century, is housed inside a bank building set to be converted into condominiums and retail space. The interior, which Binford also designed, has already been removed.

City Councilman Corey Johnson, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood, and the preservationist group Save Chelsea are trying to convince the developer to either preserve the mural or turn it over to someone who will.

“Save Chelsea would very much like to see the mural saved and protected,” said Laurence Frommer, one of the group’s leaders. “And we would, of course, like it to be done in the proper way.”

The property’s developer, Gemini Rosemont, is open to preserving the mural but has not yet committed to doing so.

“We don’t have enough information to make any decisions at this point,” said Brian Ferrier, Gemini Rosemont’s vice president of development. “We’re interested in the community’s thoughts about this, and we’re going down the road to find a solution.” He added that the new building is still being designed, and no date has been set for demolishing the supporting walls on which the mural hangs.

The mural is painted on canvas, not plaster, which significantly eases the burden of preservation. The developer contacted several galleries to determine its value and see if there was any interest in the work. Mr. Ferrier says that they did not receive any positive responses. “It was kind of crickets.”

Jamestown, the real estate company that owns the neighborhood’s Chelsea Market, expressed interest in helping to preserve the mural after being contacted by a representative of Save Chelsea. On Tuesday, Erik Bottcher, Mr. Johnson’s chief of staff, said that Google had contacted his office to say it would like to play a role in protecting Binford’s painting.

Local leaders were alerted to the existence of the mural by Andrew Cronson, a junior at New York University, in October. “I walked by this sort of mundane bank on the corner of 6th Avenue, and its ghostly presence struck me,” he said of mural. When he returned to the building and saw demolition permits posted there, he contacted several local preservationist groups, and Save Chelsea answered the call.

The painting’s subject is the intersection of 14th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan as it might have looked at the end of the 1800s. Horse-drawn carriages compete with women carrying parasols for the right of way. Commuters climb the stairs to the aboveground train, and crowds congregate on sidewalks where vendors hawk their wares. A marching band on parade startles a horse and what appears to be a young couple strolls, oblivious to the commotion surrounding them.

Though Binford, who died in 1997, is not well known, “A Memory of 14th Street and 6th Avenue” is connected to an important tradition of America painting, Jon Ritter, a professor of architecture and urbanism at N.Y.U., explained in a phone interview. Binford had painted a government-commissioned mural for a Mississippi post office in 1939, and Professor Ritter noted the Chelsea mural’s aesthetic kinship with the government-funded large-scale works of the Great Depression. The painting, he said, also bears the influence of Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and of European Cubists like Picasso and Braque.

“It’s clearly not a linear picture of a single moment of time on this street,” Professor Ritter said. “He’s using a radically distorted or fragmented approach to storytelling to show a number of different scenes at once. The idea of Cubism was to represent multiple time sequences on one single canvas.”

By the time Binford painted the mural, the world it portrays was long gone. Cars had replaced horses and carriages, and parasols were long out of fashion. Today, the building stands at the intersection of Chelsea, the West Village and the Meatpacking District, three of Manhattan’s most expensive neighborhoods. According to city records, Gemini Rosemont bought the one-story building in April for $42.4 million.

“It’s alarming when something so special comes close to being demolished,” Mr. Johnson wrote by email. “Binford’s mural is a window into our neighborhood’s history. I’m hopeful that the building owners will save the mural. If they don’t, I hope we can find someone who can.”

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