Judge Hands Victory to Protectors of Tribeca's 1897 Landmark Clock

They fought Landmarks and won. From left, with 346 Broadway behind them: Preservationist Jeremy Woodoff; Chris DeSantis ("Clocks of New York"); lawyer Michael Hiller; Historic Districts Council Director Simeon Bankoff; clock caretaker Forest Markowitz; Christabel Gough, Society for the Architecture of the City; Tribeca Trust President Lynn Ellsworth; and Tom Bernardin, Save America's Clocks. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 03, 2016

“Arbitrary and irrational.”

That’s how a judge described the decision by the Landmarks Preservation Commission that would have allowed developers to turn the landmarked interior of a Tribeca clock tower, with its rare 1897 mechanical clock, into someone’s triplex penthouse.

In her decision, issued last Thursday, State Supreme Court Judge Lynn R. Kotler sided with preservationists who had sued the LPC, ruling that it had “no rational basis” to permit the owners of 346 Broadway to eliminate public access to the clock and tower, both of which are designated landmarks.

The commission, with only one dissenting vote, had issued a Certificate of Appropriateness for the developer's plans despite opposition from many preservationists, clock aficionados and Community Board 1.

The Peebles Corp. and the El Ad Group, who bought the building from the city in 2013, had proposed the plans as part of their extensive residential conversion and restoration of the former New York Life Insurance building.

“I’m on Cloud 9, maybe Cloud 18,” said Marvin Schneider, the city’s official Clock Master who has been the clock’s caretaker since 1980. Schneider and others had spent a year working as volunteers to restore the mechanism and bring the historic clock, with its 2,600 pounds of weights, back to life after 20 years of abandonment.

Joined in 1992 by Forest Markowitz, a retired senior director in the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp., the pair have wound, oiled, inspected, reset and otherwise preserved the 1897 E. Howard Watch and Clock Company’s No. 4 Striking Tower Clock. It is one of the few still-functioning mechanical tower clocks of its kind.

The last time that the developers allowed Schneider and Markowitz to visit the clock was March 11, 2015. It ceased to run after that last winding.

“I want to get up there and look at it. No one has been up there in over a year as far as I know,” said Markowitz, who with Schneider was among the plaintiffs in the suit. “It’s a somewhat grimy environment up there so it does need oil and cleaning. Particularly the chains that hold up the weights. If unattended to, they will rust.”

Asked if he would volunteer his services to the building’s owners, Schneider replied, “At this point I don’t think that I have to advertise that I’m available.”

No sooner had the Landmarks Commission voted its approval, in December 2014, than Schneider and Markowitz said they expected to challenge the decision in court. It was the “logical, independent and insightful thinking” of the lone dissenting commissioner, Adi Shamir-Baron, Schneider said, that strengthened his resolve.

“We’re going to not allow it to be manually wound so that it can be privately owned even though its designation is based on its public good?” the seemingly bewildered commissioner had questioned her colleagues before the vote.

“Her remarks,” Schneider said, “helped sustain me in my belief that what the LPC was approving was a great error and injustice.”

Christabel Gough, who monitors the commission for the Society for the Architecture of the City, similarly saw a lawsuit on the horizon.

“When this went through I said this couldn’t be right,” Gough recalled, “so I called [attorney] Michael Hiller, he agreed and so we brought the suit.”

Hiller, who represented the plaintiffs, argued that the commission did not have the right to allow the developers to dismantle the clock and prevent the public from viewing it. At the hearing on the developer’s conversion and restoration plans for the building, the LPC’s general counsel, Mark Silberman, advised the commissioners that there is “no power under the Landmarks law to require interior designated spaces to remain public.”

In her decision, the judge countered that “there still is no rational basis for the Commission to permit work to be performed which would completely eliminate public access to an interior landmark.” She also shot down Silberman’s argument that the Commission is not empowered to require that the clock operate mechanically. The LPC’s approval to electrify the clock, she wrote, “must be annulled entirely.”

Now, Hiller argues, Schneider and Markowitz should be allowed to return to the clock and do their job.

“It is a New York City landmark and under the Landmarks Law the owners of landmark properties are required to maintain them. They can’t let them fall into disrepair,” he said. “So someone needs to wind it and those two gentleman are the ones best suited to do that work.”

An LPC spokeswoman said the agency would have no comment on the decision and the City Law Department, according to its spokesman, is “studying” it. Deborah Wilen, project coordinator for El Ad, said the developer would have no comment. The Peebles Corp. did not respond to a request for comment.

In the meantime, the preservationists who brought the suit said they see wider implications for the decision.

“It is certainly reassuring when a David can take down a Goliath,” said Tom Bernardin, founder of Save America’s Clocks, a group devoted to cataloging and preserving public clocks around the country.  “I think this is going to empower preservationists across the country to use this as a precedent and give them the power, the strength and the inspiration to challenge whatever is going on in their respective cities or towns.”

“This could have major implications on how interior landmarks are now regulated,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. “Perhaps one day we might even see the reopening of the Woolworth Building to regular visitors.”

Bankoff noted that interior landmarks were excluded when the original Landmarks Law was enacted in 1965 and only added later as an amendment. “I think this continues the job of broadening and strengthening the power of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, regardless of their questionable decisions.”

Lynn Ellsworth, who heads Tribeca Trust, another plaintiff in the suit, said she can think of another dozen “arbitrary and capricious” decisions by the LPC that are worth legal scrutiny.   

“You look at the decisions and you’re thinking, ‘How on earth could they have come up with that?’” she said.


In October, 2014, as developers were pursuing approvals for their residential conversion plans for 346 Broadway, the Trib visited with the city’s Clock Master, Marvin Schneider, and Forest Markowitz, who were continuing to wind the clock after electricity had been cut to the tower. Below is the video that came from that visit.

See video