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January 6th, 2005

Sammy Sold

by Alexandra Schwimmer

SoHo’s long silent building gets a chance to rejoin the neighborhood
by: Alexandra Schwimmer

It is beginning to rain and Toro is eating his lunch. He is not worried about the rain because he is inside of 350 West Broadway on the first floor, which has never been used. Sitting on a chair he brought from his home across the street with a fold out table across his lap, he eats his lunch. Home made Puerto Rican food with wine. Toro is wearing fine pants with a belt and a clean white T-shirt, as well as his customary straw fedora. Spanish music plays on his radio. Some days Toro’s music grows louder and livelier, other days it is softer and he brings his guitar along. Toro’s siesta takes place on the private first floor of 350 West Broadway.

The only neighborhood person with a key to the roll down gate of 350 West Broadway is Toro, the building’s Super. He has been caring for 350 since it was bought out of foreclosure and there have never been tenants for him to deal with, as the building has remained vacant. The building’s history is a secretive one and in the tradition of SoHo secrets straight answers are difficult to locate. This is what one could surmise if one did not know Sammy, the owner of 350 West Broadway, until recently.

“What’s happening with that building?” 350 West Broadway has become simply, “That Building.” Touching 350 to the South is Felix, the most authentic French Bistro in New York, with lively French and Brazilian flags flying. To the North of 350 is an active three level Garage Open 24 Hours A Day. 350 is dark.

Thea -the hostess at Felix- and the garage attendants at the Parking Garage know what is meant when they are questioned about “That Building.” SoHo buildings have personalities as distinctive as the characters that inhabit them and the extended vacancy of 350 West Broadway for almost two decades has rendered it an outsider. The rumors about “That Building” have evolved into a neighborhood competition or nothing at all, depending on whom you ask. Almost no one knows who owns it, what they plan to do with it, or what exactly its function is on this block at the South end of SoHo. 350 needs a chance to rejoin the neighborhood.

350 was not always an outsider building. A building that had stood on the same land since 1903 was taken down and a new building erected in 1920. The sign over the original 1920 garage roll up door read Robins Brake and Spring. Back when The Penguin Man owned Robins the neighborhood didn’t ask questions about the building the shop was housed in or its role in the neighborhood. There was no need to ask as it was displayed on the sign out front, with the earliest electrical sign application for Robins having been in 1935. The Penguin Man was there in the early morning five days a week sweeping the sidewalk in front of his door before business began for the day. People on the block began to call Mr. Robins Penguin Man in 1941 when the new villain was added to Batman. The Penguin Man’s resemblance to the cartoon character with his tiny hands, sharply pointed nose, and waddle walk caused the nickname to stick.

It is rumored in the neighborhood that long before The Penguin Man got his nickname in the Forties his shop was assisting bootleggers in the Twenties and throughout Prohibition. The heavy-duty springs installed at Robin’s Brake and Spring were not average springs and the friends who stopped in to say good morning to The Penguin Man and conduct business were not average friends. The springs at Robin’s were heavy-duty reinforced springs for the cars and trucks of bootleggers. These special springs resulted in the maintenance of a vertical level, with no sagging, in the vehicles transporting alcohol so that the heavy loads would go undetected by police.

Prohibition came to a close and Robin’s stayed open legitimately working on vehicles into the Eighties. On August 8, 1987 an alteration notice for 350 was filed and in later 1987 or early 1988, the original Butler structure was knocked down. 350 West Broadway as the neighborhood knows it today is one hundred and twenty feet long and only two stories high with a basement.

The building is constructed of red masonry and has a front wall of steel framed glass doors and windows emptily looking out onto the inspiring life of West Broadway. Where The Penguin Man’s sign used to hang there is now a long green awning with the white number 350 on it. A roll down gate stretches across the building and is hardly ever rolled up. The structure looks nothing like the original.

The alteration notice filed at the Department of Buildings requested a permit to alter the existing building. When a completely new building was put up a Certificate of Occupancy for the new building was refused. The last Certificate of Occupancy for the original Butler building allows for a garage and gasoline tanks. It was approved by the New York City Fire Department and is the Certificate of Occupancy that stands for the property today. There is no longer a garage at 350 West Broadway; a bare building is all that remains.

This building is a casualty of more than a strategy gone wrong.

When a building is built in New York City there are set Zoning laws to adhere to. Starting from the ground up, 350 has questions relating to set back. The building can be full on the ground floor, but the second floor needs to recess twenty feet. A retail space is not permitted at 350 as lots over three thousand six hundred square feet below Broome Street cannot be used for retail purposes. A variance, or official change in what is required under existing Zoning, is needed in order to use the building as built and achieve a Certificate of Occupancy.

Amazingly, landmarking is not the problem. Tight landmarking laws maintain the grand and historical New York style of the neighborhood’s buildings, keeping the streets of SoHo both charming and fascinating for the eyes at every step. These laws do not affect 350. The West side of the block where the building stands is mistakenly not landmarked and therefore the rectangular glass and concrete appearance of 350 is not what keeps it from being reacquainted with the neighborhood it is a part of. After seventeen years the spell of 350’s long time vacancy has only just recently been broken.

Toro now sits behind the gate eating his lunch. People working on West Broadway set their lunch hours by the time Toro has created for himself, this way they too can enjoy his music. It is one of Toro’s final lunches on the private steps of 350 as after seventeen years it is time to hand over his gate keys. Today the rain from a second seasonal hurricane arrives. Cars are skidding in the sewer muck that rises up whenever there is major rain and flooding. The tourists jog self-consciously to cover. Felix is packed and the forest green awning of 350 is long enough to afford comfortable rain cover for many people. The tourists stand clutching shopping bags to their stomachs, backs to the building. The sound of Toro’s music makes them turn to look into the darkness beyond the metal gate.

“What’s happening with this building?” a young woman with frizzing black hair asks Toro. She is holding a black garbage bag; the kind purchases made on Canal Street are wrapped in. Toro looks out at her, out towards the grey street now slick with water, “It was just sold.”

Just that simply the conversation ends, a strong example of SoHo’s noted ability to keep a secret.

Alexandra Schwimmer

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | New York

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