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Calhoun School Reveals Redesign of Controversial West End Ave. Building

By Emily Frost | February 21, 2014 5:33pm
 The school's proposal to change its ground floor was met with sketpicism from residents who said it did not mesh well with the existing building. 
Calhoun School Redesign
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Call it the DVD player?

A school building that's been referred to as the "the TV" and "the VCR" for its boxy design is getting an overhaul that some residents said will make it clash even more with the surrounding historic neighborhood. 

The private K-12 Calhoun School's main building on West End Avenue at West 81st Street has gone from housing 250 students in 1974, when the building first opened, to 550 today — an increase that warrants an expanded cafeteria and lobby space, said Head of School Steve Nelson. 

In 2004, four stories designed by FXFOWLE were added to the top of the building, creating an addition some refer to as the "VCR." 

The same architecture firm is now proposing adding a wall of clear glass to the area below the cube that would expand the footprint of the building, let in more light and make the ground floor meld better with the street, lead architect Ann Rolland said.

The library would move to the basement level and the entry floor would feature a larger cafeteria, able to serve 200 students at a time instead of the current 75.

"We are pushing the building outward to the underside of the existing flash cube and making a larger lobby where there was outdoor space before," she explained.

But several residents scoffed at the new design upon seeing it for the first time Thursday night at a meeting of Community Board 7's Preservation Committee meeting Thursday night, which ultimately approved the plan.

"You have the TV on the bottom, the VCR on the top, and now you have George Jetson on the bottom," said John Gray, a resident living nearby, adding, "they’re going from very ugly to hideous."               

Another resident, Eugene Levy, who said he lives across the street, was slightly less harsh in his critique. "You haven’t made the ugliest building on the Upper West Side any uglier, I’ll give you that," he said. 

But diminishing the yard around the perimeter the school would force kids to hang out on the street and sit on cars, disrupting the neighborhood, he claimed. 

Jay Adolf, co-chair of CB7's Preservation Committee, described the new design as a "vast improvement" but added that "it’s like putting lipstick on a pig." 

Several board members and a representative of Landmarks West, a local preservation advocacy group, said they hoped the school would push back the glass wall a bit so that the cube structure still appeared to hover above the ground, as it was originally designed. 

The redesign, for which the school needs Landmarks Preservation Commission approval, would begin at the end of the school year and finish before students return for the following year, Nelson said.

The Preservation Committee unanimously approved the design, which now must go before the full board for a vote. The LPC will take the board's decision into consideration in its decision.