Karrie Jacobs


May 12, 2008

The Most Beautiful Room in New York

David Byrne (yellow raincoat) in the Great Hall of the Battery Maritime Building.

Who knew that this 99 year old building, formerly the terminal for the East River ferries, now the spot to catch a boat to Governors Island, housed such a magnificent space? On weekends from May 31 until August 10 this 9000 square foot room, with its long skylight and its ornate columns, will be the site of an audio installation by the multi-talented David Byrne (see picture below), presented by Creative Time. The opening of the installation coincides with the start of summer ferry service to Governor’s Island. The idea is that visitors will be able to work the keyboard of an antique organ and generate sounds using the structure of the room — beams, pipes, and ducts — as instruments.

I went to the press conference this morning because it was David Byrne. But I walked away amazed that a building that I routinely pass on my weekend run harbored this amazing secret. While I look forward to visiting Byrne’s installation, I’m already wondering what will happen afterward to the Great Hall, open to the public for the first time in decades. Once people see this space, I think they’ll be unwilling to let it go back into hiding.

A developer called the Dermot Company has won the right to build a 140 room luxury hotel atop the Battery Maritime Building, but is struggling to come up with an appropriate public use for the Great Hall. A February New York Times article about this building concluded:

For the Battery Maritime Building, the main issue is ensuring that the Great Hall remains public, said Julie Menin, the chairwoman of the local community board.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing more and more true landmarks not available for public use,” she said, citing 55 Wall Street, a McKim, Mead & White building that became the private Cipriani Club Residence after its short life as the Regent Hotel.

“We want to see full round-the-clock public use,” she said.

All I can add to Julie Menin’s comments is amen.

David Byrne. (Check out his web radio station.)

A rendering of the installation. (Click on photo for a complete description and a conversation between curator Anne Pasternak and Byrne.)