Why we're campaigning to save The Merchants House Museum

The area of NoHo (the area north of Houston Street in which the Museum is located) is sought after, both for residents of Manhattan and for tourists visiting the city. It is close to commercial districts and tourist attractions. Rapid gentrification from 2000 has made it one of the most expensive neighborhoods of Manhattan in which to live. Bedroom loft apartments are in high demand.

That makes it a profitable place to construct a new hotel, and especially so if that hotel is next to a unique landmark building such as 29 East Fourth Street. The hotel plans to offer extended stay suites – effectively bedsits – from six months to years. Suites would be attractive as corporate housing.

The developer has proposed a building of eight stories at a height of 100 feet. The would violate the City’s Zoning Resolution, so the developer has asked for the zoning text to be amended so that the rules can be bent at certain “spots”, notably where just two buildings are: 27 East Fourth Street (the site of the proposed hotel) and 53 Great Jones Street. Such a comparatively tall building would obstruct sunlight and cause additional shadow over the garden.

Many residents of NoHo also believe that the design of the proposed hotel is not suitable given that the areas nearby are designated Historic Districts because of the number of early-nineteenth century houses, institutional buildings, and office buildings that they contain.

The board of directors of the Museum is also concerned that the development will cause damage to the building. In 1988, development took place on the other side of the house. Despite assurances from the building contractor to demolish brick by brick, large scale demolition works caused major structural damage to the house and forced closure of the Museum on and off for over two years while repairs were carried out.

The Museum building still has the original plasterwork on the ceilings, which is delicate. Much of the highly intricate plaster is located close to the walls on the side of the proposed construction. The developer estimates that work on the new hotel will cause the Merchant’s House to move just under a centimetre, which is known would damage the plasterwork. Other structural engineers predict that the movement could be far greater – perhaps 4cm, which would damage the plaster far more.

The Museum needs to be protected. It is unique and has huge cultural value to the area and to the city. Although the developers have said that they will help minimise the impact of the new development of the hotel, it would be hard to bind them to doing so. Damage costs might exceed the pledge that the developers give, or the company might renege on their contract altogether. When the building doesn’t meet Zoning regulations in the first place, and when the risks to such a historic building next door are so great, it doesn’t make sense to approve construction.