Mourning the Loss of Superior Inks, and Taking Stock of Its Replacement

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Superior Ink, prior to demolition

For over 85 years, the 195 foot tall smokestacks of the Superior Inks building were a local landmark and beacon for the Far West Village. They were also a vital link to the Greenwich Village waterfront’s maritime/industrial heritage, as in the mid-2000’s they were part of the last operating factory on the Greenwich Village waterfront.

Unfortunately, the stacks and the Superior Inks factory were not designated landmarks nor located within a designated NYC historic district, and thus they were demolished ten years ago this week, on November 16, 2006.

GVSHP fought hard to save this historic building, including it in a proposed Far West Village/Greenwich Village Waterfront Historic District (map here), much but not all of which the City did eventually landmark between 2006 and 2011. We did prevent this much taller, horribly non-contextual glass tower originally proposed for the site from being built. Zoned for manufacturing, the developers had to apply for a variance, allowing GVSHP to fight back against the plan for a 270 foot tall, 210,000 square foot development. GVSHP’s and the community’s efforts led to a scaled back building 25% smaller in height and square footage than initially planned.

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Photomontage showing what the original proposed Superior Inks development would have looked like in context along the Greenwich Village waterfront.  Photo and rendering by GVSHP.

These photos show the entire smokestack  demolition process. According to GVSHP research, the building was built in 1919-21 as a cracker bakery for Nabisco, part of a broader complex of Nabisco buildings in the area, the bulk of which is located a few blocks to the north on 14th, 15th, and 16th Street, mostly in what is now known as Chelsea Market. An early example of establishing a uniform corporate identity through architecture, the factory was built in the same style as the main complex to the north as well as other major Nabisco complexes in Pittsburgh and Chicago.  The architect, A. G. Zimmermann, and the Nabisco President, Adolphus Green, appear to have been aware of and influenced by emerging contemporary German ideas about utilitarian and industrial design, and Zimmermann’s broad bays and functional design betray his own Chicago roots.

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Promotional brochure for Superior Inks development.

The complex which was eventually built, designed by architect Robert A.M. Stern, is worlds more contextual than what was originally proposed. In fact, the base of the building upon which the new tower sits is meant to mimic the scale, materials, and character of the original building.  In response to protests from GVSHP and neighbors, the height of the new tower was kept lower than that of neighboring Westbeth, the (now-landmarked) former Bell Telephone Labs. In addition, the tower was placed to minimize impact upon the light and air of both Westbeth residents and those of the adjacent loft building at 380 West 12th Street, which has windows on the Superior Inks property line.

Images of the Superior Inks townhouses.

The seven new townhouses attached to the complex along Bethune Street are another thing altogether.  Townhouses on sidestreets are quite typical of the area, and at three stories plus basement, with brick and masonry facades, each a little different from one another but utilizing some historic(ish)  architectural elements, there’s no lack of effort here to try to make these fit in.

But no one would ever mistake these townhouses for actual 19th or even early 20th century townhouses. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as one could argue that new townhouses shouldn’t necessarily pretend to be old townhouses; they should just try to get along well with them.  That said, these townhouses look much more like they are referencing the very grand sort of homes one would find off Park avenue on the Upper East Side or in Georgetown, or even in some newer developments in places like Atlanta or Columbia, Maryland, rather than the grittier and more authentic waterfront blocks of the Far West Village.

Whatever your opinion of the Superior Inks project, we can all be grateful that we did not get another reflective glass high-rise with no relationship to the neighborhood that towered over its surroundings.  And we can all mourn the loss of those wonderful smokestacks and that last remaining factory, now gone a decade ago.

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