About The Police Building, 240 Centre Street
New York City is full of surprises, but none more than startling than this building.
Smack in the middle of Little Italy's tenements is this spectacular Baroque-revival-style palace.
Almost more incongruous, this ornate structure was built as the headquarters of the city's Police Department. It was designed by Hoppin & Koen in 1909, when architects and planners were still under the influence of the image of the "White City," the Beaux Arts inspired notion of a beautiful city that had been highlighted at the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
At the time of its construction, the city still nurtured the idea of developing a magnificent new city government complex in the City Hall area and this was one of the fruits.
The building's dome harkens to the great cupola of the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, albeit not quite so ornate. But its wedge-shape at the north end where it has its own fenced park also evokes memories of Venice and its great promontory buildings.
Usually, planners hope that major projects such as this can not only enliven and invigorate a neighborhood but also lead to a considerable redevelopment and gentrification. Such dreams, however, were not realized here as the Little Italy community has not been eager for new development, although in the last quarter of the 20th Century it did witness an upgrading of its main thoroughfare nearby with a variety of urban design ploys that helped its retail activity.
In 1973, the city opened a new headquarters for the Police Department, a huge modernistic, red brick box to the east of the Municipal Building, and this building fell into limbo after many years of neglect.
S.I.T.E. (Sculpture In The Environment), a famous New York design group, teamed with some architects and Canadian developers a few years later to try to redevelop this building as a deluxe hotel, a use that made perfect sense given the grandeur of its exterior and the scale of the interiors. Financing, however, was difficult to obtain as the area was distinctly off the beaten jet set path.
The success of SoHo and NoHo revived interest in the property and in 1988 it was converted into cooperative apartments. The developers of the conversion were Arthur D. Emil, John J. Ferchill and Edward R. Downe Jr. Mr. Downe, the head of Downe Communications, took over one of the grandest apartments to house part of his very extensive collection of 20th Century American Art.
The Downe apartment was not the most spectacular as it was not the one with the Dome.
The 55-unit conversion, designed by Ehrenkrantz Group & Eckstut, was remarkable and one of the nation's finest examples of re-use of historical properties. The building has an entrance at the midblock of its Centre Street frontage that leads up a few stairs to a lobby spacious and dazzling enough to rival all luxury hotels in the city. Almost all the apartments are large and different and many have very tall ceilings. One of the most desirable includes the garden and another has the terrace overlooking the garden.
The building is, without question, the premier residence in Lower Manhattan based on the quality of the building and the apartments. Its location, however, remains rather awkward, but has improved slightly. The former gun shops and "press shacks" for the reporters that covered the police beat are gone and Little Italy is in full blossom a block or two away at Café Roma, the best Italian café, in the city, or Café Ferrara, the more large and more famous institution.
While the majestic building does not boast some modern conveniences such as a health club and pool, it has some fireplaces and, most importantly, a grandeur that rivals the best of the long-gone Millionaire's Row on Fifth Avenue.