By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
EAST VILLAGE — A group of preservationists are pushing to get a pair of 170-year-old rowhouses designated as landmarks to prevent significant changes by the buildings' new owner, they said at a rally Tuesday.
The connected three-story Greek Revival properties at 326 and 328 E. 4th St., between Avenues C and D, were purchased by a developer after most recently housing an artist collective that owned the buildings since 1974.
One of the rowhouses also previously served as a synagogue for a Hasidic Jewish congregation that operated out of the property for nearly 50 years, and before that both properties acted as a home to shipping merchants connected to what were then the East River docks.
"They are a wonderful piece of our city's history and our neighborhood's history," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, adding that the addresses exemplify "the arc of how this neighborhood has evolved."
The GVSHP and East Village Community Coalition filed an application with the city's Landmark Preservation Commission in August to review the properties for designation after hearing about the buildings' sale.
But the LPC found that the "loss and replacement of some significant features" of the buildings, and the fact that the properties "are in too poor a physical condition to rise to the level of individual landmarks," weren't enough to earn them protections, according to a letter from commission chairman Robert B. Tierney.
LPC spokeswoman Lisi de Bourbon said that the commission's reversal on the determination would be "unlikely," but acknowledged that the decision could be overturned if a "compelling case" could be made for the building's designation.
Preservationists are then hoping that continued research into the property's past showing could be enough to get the commission to change its mind.
"They really span the history of our community," noted Kurt Cavanaugh, managing director of the EVCC. "Our neighborhood is under-protected — woefully under-protected — by landmarks."
Aside from the building's role in the city's waterfront shipping industry, it also served as a house of worship for the Lower East Side's thriving Jewish community.
From 1924 to 1970, 328 E. 4th Street housed Congregation Hesed LeAvraham, the only remnant of the Hasidic population north of Houston Street, according to Laurie Tobias Cohen, of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy.
"This is a community that, in many respects, has been under siege for a lot of years now," said Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, of the neighborhood's development push. "Sometimes a building like this really can become the focal point of what's important to us."
Advocates worry that without any landmark protections, the structures would be open to major alterations or possibly demolition, despite the new owner's stated intent to preserve the buildings' façade.
An approved permit on file with the city's Department of Buildings shows the owner, Terrence Lowenberg, plans to build two stories on top of the existing structures and convert the properties to apartments.
A spokesperson for the owner said the construction would include a gut renovation of the buildings, but not any exterior work on the existing façade.
"We're going to try to restore them as much as possible to the original look of them," said the spokesperson, who declined to give a name. "I think what [preservationists are] opposed to is any vertical or horizontal extension."
Berman said the additional stories would be permissible, in his view, as long as they are set back from the street — which would also conform to landmarks law.
But he isn't convinced that is the new owner's intention.
"This guy has a pretty bad track record with other [purchased] properties in the neighborhood," Berman said. "He's not somebody we just want to leave to his own devices."