Last month, the students in Francoise Bollack’s class Old Buildings New Forms were lucky enough to receive Hugh Hardy’s final tour of his work on the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The great architect died just a few weeks later, after falling while on his way to a show at the Joyce Theater, another of the many theaters in New York to have benefitted from Hardy’s touch.
New York was Hardy’s hometown, and his thoughtful, whimsical, and sometimes dramatic approach can be felt in so many of the city’s gathering places: Radio City Music Hall, Bryant Park, the New Amsterdam Theatre. But while he is most well-known for his work with theaters, it is his design for a townhouse in Greenwich Village that most clearly captures the narrative power in his work.
In the spring of 1970, the townhouse at 18 West 11th Street exploded while a group of Weathermen were attempting to make a nail bomb. The explosion left three of the group’s members dead, as well as a vacant lot in the middle of a row of seven brick townhouses – part of the Greenwich Village Historic District, which had been designated just one year earlier.
The townhouses were built in 1845 for Henry Brevoort, a farmer who owned 86 acres between 9th Street and 18th Street. Originally they were built to be identical, but over the years, small changes had been made to each, so that they looked more like siblings than septuplets. The designation report for the historic district describes some of the row’s original details, like wrought ironwork at the stoop, cast iron railings on the full-length drawing room windows, windows at the attic window, and the original dentiled cornices. Before the explosion, 18 West 11th had made many changes to its facade that deviated from these original details.
After the explosion and the search for more bombs all that was left of this house was a vacant lot. At the time, some saw so much value in the original building that replacing it with any design was unacceptable. But most felt that the value was truly in the context – the Brevoort Row. The issue of what to with the lot was incredibly controversial. On a larger scale, what happened at 18 West 11th Street was a culmination of and a defining moment in the culture wars of the 60s and 70s. But then on a smaller scale it was a local tragedy. Amid all that was the idea that the lot was a test of the landmark designation, which had been passed a few years earlier.
Hardy’s approach was to view the house not as an individual building, but rather as a part of a historic “wall.” He wanted to stitch the wall back together by borrowing some of the historic details – the brick, the dentiled roofline, the smaller attic windows, the stoop, but to assert his own design. These are elements he borrowed from the neighboring houses, not from what had been there pre-explosion – he did not replicate any of those details that had been altered on the house. He was focused on “wall.” He wanted to respect the importance of the historic context while being honest in its time. He wanted to heal the wall, but he didn’t want it to look like nothing had ever happened to it.
Walking down this block today – you know immediately that something happened to this building in the 1970s, thanks to the diagonal pop out of the façade. This element has always been the most divisive aspect of the design. While it is certainly reminiscent of the explosion, Hardy actually describes it as an attempt to have the exterior relate to the interior. Because the interior is made up of diagonal lines and half stories, he wanted that reflected on the exterior.
This is partly because as he says, “we were deeper into diagonals at that point.” Mid-century architects’ interest in diagonals often developed out of playing with conventional grids. Examining the house in plan reveals this exterior and interior relationship. Notice how the interior is aligned along a diagonal grid, allowing for rooms with longer spans than the typical Manhattan row house.
But this diagonal grid is inserted into the pre-existing grid of Brevoort Row. These seven rectangles represent the other neighboring houses. The diagonal pop out is expressing those grid lines.
On the exterior, that meeting of different grids is partly expressed by the soldier courses of brick. They take their cues from the original stone sills and lintels (one width on the sill, two widths on the lintel) but are not confined to just the windows. Instead they run the whole length of the facade to really emphasize the force of Hardy’s grid. If the soldier course represents the old grid of the row, you can see how Hardy’s new interior grid is pushing and distorting that old one.
The design for 18 West 11th Street was Hardy’s way of healing without forgetting. When the home was purchased by a hedge fund manager in 2014, the new owner bristled at the flowers and notes that were frequently left in front of the house. “The house is not a monument to a historic event,” he told the New York Times. But monuments are in the eye of the beholder, and the Weathermen House, as it has become known, was always going to have memorial overtones. Which is what makes Hardy’s design so effective – he created an architectural scar of a traumatic event. Scars represent healing and recovery, but they also remain as a memory of the wound.
Hugh Hardy had a gift for using architecture to tell the city’s stories. He will be remembered for his great contributions to New York’s parks and theaters, and – by at least one class of Columbia students – for his kindness and hospitality in sharing his work.