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Downtown Preservationists Fight to Save 1920s Community Center

By Julie Shapiro | June 10, 2011 12:47pm

By Julie Shapiro

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

FINANCIAL DISTRICT — Preservationists are rallying to save a lower Manhattan building that once served as a community center for a diverse array of early 20th-century immigrants.

Mary Dierickx, a historic preservation consultant, is leading the effort to landmark 105-107 Washington St., the former Downtown Community House, which was built in the 1920s to offer social services to the burgeoning residential population near the Hudson River docks.

"105-107 Washington Street is one of the last vestiges of a vibrant multi-ethnic late 19th and 20th century community," Dierickx said. "The handsome colonial revival-style settlement house is in danger of demolition and deserves protection."

However, the city has no plans to landmark the five-story brick building just south of the World Trade Center site.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has examined the case twice over the past 10 years and both times found it did not merit designation, said Lisi de Bourbon, spokeswoman for LPC.

"There are other, better examples of the settlement house movement," de Bourbon said Friday. "It lacks certain architectural distinction."

Community Board 1's Landmarks Committee disagreed and voted unanimously Thursday night to ask the city to landmark the building.

"It's a very important [part] of the fabric of downtown Manhattan," said Noel Jefferson, a member of the committee.

The Downtown Community House was designed by architect John F. Jackson, who is best known for designing dozens of YMCA buildings across the country.

Former Gov. Al Smith laid the $300,000 building's cornerstone in 1925, and it opened in 1926 with a health clinic, a library, an auditorium, a nursery and a dressmaking school. It served at least 16 nationalities, including Syrians, Greeks and Armenians, in the diverse neighborhood then known as Bowling Green Village, Dierickx said.

The building later housed government offices, a union and a Buddhist temple. It is now vacant, leading neighbors to fear that a developer will replace it with a more profitable high-rise, as has happened to many of the area's historic buildings in the past 10 years.

"This is a neighborhood that has been decimated…since 9/11," Dierickx said. "I'm so alarmed by all that we're losing here and all around lower Manhattan."

Dierickx and other preservationists had once hoped to create a Little Syria historic district to save a slice of the neighborhood's history, but so many other buildings have been demolished that Dierickx is focusing on saving the few that remain.

Two years ago, the city landmarked 105-107 Washington's neighbor, the former Syrian church at 103 Washington St.