Poets House After Devastating Flood. 'We're Working on Bringing It Back.'

Cornelius Eady, interim executive director of Poets House, near the buildings's ground floor entrance. Eady, a poet and musician, is on the University of Tennessee MFA faculty and will remain at his Poets House position during the search for a permanent replacement. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jan. 14, 2022

Editor's note: This story was updated on Jan. 18.

First there was the pandemic, then came the flood.

Poets House, a literary refuge at 10 River Terrace in Battery Park City since 2009, is now a sorry-looking construction site, its warm, welcoming interior the scene of ripped-out walls and missing ceilings, buckling floors and a water-ravaged elevator. On a Sunday last August, water from a broken pipe in an upstairs apartment in River House, where Poets House is located, cascaded into the space from the fire stairs and elsewhere. Already shuttered and reeling financially from the pandemic, Poets House is now in the thick of efforts to recover from the devastating damage.

“When you walk in and see it, it actually takes your breath away,” said Cornelius Eady, Poets House interim director, describing his reaction to seeing the destruction. “It was just incredibly sad.” (Click here for Eady’s video tour of the building, produced by Poets House.)

Eady, along with Poets House managing director Jane Preston, was standing in what was the 100-seat Elizabeth Kray Hall, the site of countless poetry-related programs. Now empty, save for chairs stacked on the side, the space awaited workers to pull up the flooring and search the room for mold. 

“All the readings that happened. It’s heartbreaking to think about that,” Eady, a poet, musician and educator said. “But it’s coming back. We’re working on bringing it back.” 

“We’re thinking September, Preston said.

“We’re hoping,” Eady added.

“We’re hoping. That’s a much better way to put it,” Preston agreed, noting that she’s still working on getting a final estimate of the work to insurers, who are expected to cover most of the construction costs.

“This was a LEED Gold project when it was constructed with specialty materials,” Preston said. “So we’re having to reach out to specialty suppliers to find out what the [replacement] cost of this is now.” 

Miraculously, the truly irreplaceable part of Poets House, its library, remained unscathed. The water did not reach the second-floor stacks, containing Poets Houses 70,000-volume collection, as well as the adjacent reading room.

“The heart of the place is totally intact,” Preston said. She credits Poets House’s architect, Louise Braverman, with the save.

“We’re sitting under how many floors of toilets and sinks, bathtubs and air conditioners. There are going to be leaks. But she really designed the space so that the stacks were as protected as possible.”

Poets House, which has a 60-year rent-free lease from the Battery Park City Authority, closed as a result of the pandemic in March 2020, its staff continuing to work from home. But in November of that year, the non-profit announced its “temporary cessation of operations” and staff layoffs resulting from a “dwindling emergency funds and a difficult fundraising environment.” Without the institution’s major events that paid for its operations, including the annual poetry walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, Poets House had rung up a $250,000 deficit for the year, according to a statement by the organization’s board. Executive Director Lee Briccetti, lauded for her many years of leadership of the tightly-funded non-profit, retired in the fall of 2021.  

In a phone interview, Poets House board chairman Robert Kissane said the board has established a million-dollar fundraising goal and already raised more than half of that “just from the board and some close friends,” with contingent commitments of “significant amounts” from foundations. “I have complete and utter confidence in our financial position going forward,” even without the usual fundraising events, Kissane said.

In the meantime, Poets House is featuring remote programming with its  “Hard Hat Reading Series.” And looking to the future, it will be searching for a permanent executive director, and taking on what it calls a “listening process.” A broad group of constituents is expected to be tapped for ideas on new directions for programing, the library and other parts of the organization. 

“We have an opportunity,” Eady said, “not only to rebuild, but to reimagine.”