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Ornamental Urns Sawed Off Historic UWS Building

By Leslie Albrecht | May 18, 2011 9:00am | Updated on May 18, 2011 6:05pm

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — Kennedy Fraser's apartment is near the bustling corner of West 86th Street and West End Avenue, but the urn on her terrace takes her back to a different place and time.

The neoclassical decorative urn reminds Fraser of the type of ornament a 18-century English gentleman would have brought back from Europe after his Grand Tour and installed in his garden, she said.

But to building management, the urn — one of about 20 that decorate the 1926 facade of Fraser's building — is a safety hazard.

Fraser was crushed last week when a worker showed up without warning and used a circular saw to lop off two of the three urns on her 17th-floor terrace. Workers removed about five urns in all from the building, Fraser said.

"To me, this is an act of cultural vandalism," said Fraser, who moved into the building in 1976. "The urns represent something in the cultural history of New York — a wish for beauty, elegance and culture. It's what gives life meaning, that things go back into the past. We look at these urns and they resonate with us."

Fraser rushed out to her balcony and confronted the worker, shouting "Illegal! What are you doing?" She said the man responded simply, "Garbage." Fraser said she "flung her arms" around a third urn on her terrace to save it from being tossed out.

Fraser and some of her neighbors confronted building management, and made enough of a fuss that building officials agreed to temporarily halt the removal of the urns, they said

To Fraser and her neighbors, the urns are a highlight of their prewar structure. Long ago, the 22-story building was the Cambridge Hotel, a residential hotel where tenants dressed for dinner and took their meals in a restaurant with white-gloved attendants, Fraser said.

About ten years ago, Atria Senior Living took over 333 W. 86th St. and turned it into an assisted living facility. Now the building is a mix of longtime tenants and about 150 Atria clients, an Atria spokeswoman said. She declined to say how many longtime tenants like Fraser still live in the building.

Building managers recently hired an engineer to "evaluate and assess" the building's facade to make sure it meets building codes, Atria spokeswoman Amy Schuster said. The engineer suggested removing the urns as a safety precaution, Schuster said.

"Obviously from a historical and architectural perspective, we want to do what's best in preserving that, but keeping everyone safe is by far the most important issue," Schuster said. "Our highest priority at all times is ensuring the safety of the people who make their homes with us."

Fraser and her neighbor Marjorie Palmer point out that Atria touts the building's prewar architectural details in marketing materials, and even features a photo of one of the urns on its website.

Palmer says Atria, based in Lousville, Ky., seems tone deaf to neighborhood concerns about historic preservation. Atria's West 86th Street building is one of about 800 Upper West Side structures that preservationists are hoping to landmark in a massive historic district.

"(Removing the urns) is absolutely contrary to the spirit of what's happening in this neighborhood now, which is to preserve the beautiful architectural features," Palmer, who's lived in the building since the early 1960s, said.

The residents' cause has won the attention of Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side. Rosenthal told DNAinfo she's asked the Department of Buildings to investigate whether Atria has the proper permits to remove the urns.

The building is listed as "calendared for landmark status" on the DOB's website, which usually means it can't be touched, Rosenthal said.

"It's a good thing that tenants and other people who care about such things are vigilant, otherwise a lot of laws would be skirted," Rosenthal said. "It's these kinds of touches that are unique to the buildings of the West Side. If they're removed, it lessens the aesthetic value of the building."