LOOKING BACK 2003: The Little Building That Stood

In 1999, 179 West Street stands alone on city-owned land, four years before its demolition. West Street at the time was being reconstructed and provided a car-free path for rollerbladers and cyclists. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Jul. 07, 2017

Editor’s note: As we watch Tribeca's low-rise streetscape continue to give way to towering residential buildings, it is worth recalling a tiny holdout that, for years, stood alone—a survivor of western Tribeca’s distant gritty past. In 2003, 179 West Street, near the corner of Warren, was finally demolished. The building that took its place is a 30-story condominium tower at 200 Chambers Street, also home to the Palm Restaurant. This story, which documents the building’s history and demise, first appeared in the October 2003 print edition of The Tribeca Trib and is one of an ongoing series from our archives.

One Seventy-Nine West Street, the little brick building that stood alone for so long, now stands no more.

On May 20 crews arrived to demolish this last of the Downtown houses where, long ago, dockworkers drank and slept along the once-busy waterfront.

For many in today’s Tribeca, 179 West Street stood there, near the corner of Warren Street, as a symbol of defiance against the incursion of wealth and change.

Seated in her principal’s office across the street at P.S. 89, Ronnie Najjar watched sadly as crowbar-wielding workers pried apart floor boards, bricks and joists and heaved them to the ground.

“I loved that house. I look at it every day,” she said. “It’s almost like the Little House That Could, standing up unscathed to all the changes. Even to Sept. 11.”

The building went up around 1870, but not much is known about its early use. A banana merchant occupied the basement in 1927 and nine years later, city records show, he was gone, and the third and fourth floors were empty. A joint called El Green Bar & Grille occupied the ground floor.

In 1960, a 21-year-old sculptor and painter named Mardig Kachian moved into 179 West Street above what then was McClusky’s Liquor Store. The neighboring buildings were still standing then, housing mostly longshoremen’s bars, hotels and rooming houses. In an interview with the Trib several years ago, Kachian recalled approaching the proprietors of the liquor store, who owned the building, to ask about renting the floors above. “They just looked at each other. They thought I was crazy.”

Kachian got the three floors for $75 a month and took over the building after the government bought the property, which was to be condemned with the rest of the buildings west of Greenwich Street, between Hubert and Murray streets, in what was called the Washington Street Urban Renewal Project.

By the late 1960s nearly all those buildings were gone. But Kachian’s still stood. The artist and three tenants of 360 Greenwich Street, near Franklin, had joined together in a suit defending their right to remain in their buildings, now the property of the city. In 1970, a U.S. district judge ruled that the city could not evict the tenants until new buildings were ready to go up on their sites.

“What the city tried to do was scare people or evict them before they had the approved plans,” the late artist Joe DiGiorgio, one of the tenants of 360 Greenwich Street, said in an interview with the Trib several years ago.

DiGiorgio, however, did not stay long in his $32-a-month studio. His building was torn down in 1971 to make way for Independence Plaza. But Kachian had the good fortune to be living on a city-owned property called Site 5C that, to this day, has yet to be developed.

Kachian had come to own buildings on Chambers Street and Harrison Street, but continued to call 179 West Street his main residence. For years the city left him alone. (Rent: $160 a month, parking included.)

Kachian said in the 1999 Trib interview that the roof leaked, the ceiling was always wet, the living area was “decimated” and the tiles were coming off the kitchen floor. “I can’t wash there. I have no water. I go there to sleep, to lay claim to my presence there.”

It was in that year that the state Department of Transportation said the building was in the way of regrading and paving for the reconstruction of West Street, then underway.

The city, seemingly unaware of the ruling nearly 30 years earlier, began eviction proceedings against Kachian. But the DOT, in the meantime, managed to work around Kachian’s building. The tenant’s legal hold on the building apparently kept the city at bay and Kachian never went to court.

“The public good comes first,” he said at the time, “and I have no problem with leaving if they have a specific proposal in sight.”

Following negotiations two years ago [2001] with the city, Kachian left 179 West Street for good. According to Carol Abrams, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, he received a “relocation allowance” of $142,890.

Abrams said the building was torn down last month for an “interim use”: a parking lot.

Asked to comment on the demise of his long-time home, Kachian declined to share his thoughts.

“They’re private,” he said.