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Medallion Marking Miles Davis' UWS Home Delayed by Building Violations

By Emily Frost | September 24, 2013 6:59am
 The medallion that was celebrated in May has not yet been affixed to his home. 
Miles Davis Medallion
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UPPER WEST SIDE — They're feeling kind of blue.

Miles Davis fans will have to wait even longer for any recognition of the jazz legend's place in neighborhood history — as building violations continue to stand in the way of a commemorative medallion being affixed to his former residence.

Jazz lovers and local leaders turned out in May for a ceremony celebrating the presentation of a medallion honoring Davis' 25 years in the brownstone at 312 West 77th St. starting in 1958.

But the medallion is still missing from the building more than four months later, due to a decades-old violation at the landmarked address.

The building, which is a co-op owned and managed by Hans and Marjorie Rutimann, has since 1990 been in violation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission's regulations for "the installation of windows without permits," according to LPC documents. 

As long as the building, which was designated a landmark in 1984, is in violation, the LPC can deny any future work permits, including one for the addition of one of the city's cultural medallions, which highlight spots with significant cultural and social history, said agency spokeswoman Elisabeth de Bourbon.

Marjorie Rutimann and Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, who created and currently heads the Cultural Medallion program for the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center, were alerted to the violation on May 1 after they applied for a work permit for the medallion in late April and were denied.

"We made it clear when we received the application [for the medallion work] that the building was in violation," de Bourbon said.

Still, Diamonstein-Spielvogel went ahead with the ceremony and gave a keynote address at an event on May 16 that included Davis family members and friends, as well as renowned jazz musicians.

While attendees celebrated the medallion, it had no chance of actually being installed until the 23-year-old violation was remedied. 

Marjorie Rutimann, the co-op board treasurer, said her nine-unit co-op "struggle[s] to cover the cost of essential capital repairs," including continuous leaks throughout the building.

"We are eager to install the medallion, but we don't have the funds for the cosmetic repainting that would clear the violation. Repainting the windows just doesn't fit into our foreseeable budget," she said.

Diamonstein-Spielvogel was not available for comment, but her assistant Deborah Bershad said on her behalf, "She does concur with [LPC's] decision and she hopes the violation will be cleared." 

Refusing the new work permit is the LPC's only mechanism for enforcing historically accurate renovations, de Bourbon explained.

However, "a permit can be released as soon as the owner corrects the violation," she said, noting that the window work that was done "may very well conform" to existing LPC rules.

But in order for the commissioner to determine whether the window work was appropriate for the 1892 building, the owners would first have to file an application for the permit before inspectors do a site visit.

In response to the lack of action at the building, avid Davis fan, neighbor and longtime West 77th Street resident Shirley Zafirau has decided to take the matter into her own hands. 

"I’m trying to talk to the people in the building," she said. "They have been unresponsive." 

Mark Diller, chairman of Community Board 7, said he's trying to see if there's a way to influence LPC.

"I’m trying to find out if there’s anything we can do short of replacing the windows for these people," he said, adding he's investigating whether there's any "leeway" in this case, given that the community wants to acknowledge Davis' work and life here. 

Zafirau has even suggested a fundraising effort to pay for the necessary window work. 

"There might be a way to raise some money for them to [make the window renovations]," she said. "But I’m not going to push for it."

Instead, Zafirau is putting her weight behind an effort to have a street sign reading "Miles Davis Way" mark the West 77th Street block between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. 

Though she put forth the street co-naming idea in 2010 with Community Board 7 to no avail, Zafirau and others will push for it again at a Transportation Committee meeting Tuesday night. 

"His street should be signed," she said. "To modern jazz, [Davis] is every bit as important as Duke Ellington was to the American jazz idiom."

In fact, West 106th Street was renamed Duke Ellington Boulevard in 1977. 

The community board has voted against secondary street namings in the past and may look less favorably upon the idea if a medallion is already in place, Zafirau said.   

Diller said that while the board tends to favor medallions more than street signs — because of the threat of confusion in an emergency — the discussion would be taken up and "there may be folks on the board who think the secondary street naming is better."