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Instituto Cervantes Re-opens Amster Yard
By Bruce A. Silberblatt

After two years of construction - accompanied by demolition, jack hammering and rock drilling, noise and dust, and frequent Saturday overtime work - the Instituto Cervantes inaugurated its new quarters at the rebuilt Amster Yard October 10th. In attendance was Crown Prince Felipe of Spain. Now the community can enjoy the beautiful courtyard and gardens, fully restored to their original appearance, weekdays 9 AM to 9 PM.

What remains unanswered is whether the new Amster Yard is preservation or replication and, equally important, were there any available options had not the Instituto decided to settle at the Yard?

Many will argue that the original should have been preserved intact or at least restored, even though there was nobody ready to step forward and invest the not inconsiderable amount of time and money to so do. Others will hold that it is better to have a replica, and in this case, an accurate one, rather than a landmark that after years of neglect was crumbling, in some places in danger of collapse, and facing an uncertain future - perhaps ultimate demolition (permitted under certain Landmark Commission rules) and replacement with a bulky, out-of-character modern edifice bearing not the slightest resemblance to the old Amster Yard.

Landmarks regulations generally protect only building exteriors and, in the case of Amster Yard, the garden as well, but not interiors. Owners are free to reconfigure rooms, floor layout, and ceiling heights. This was the case at Amster Yard. The problem is that in order to have a functioning Instituto, not only was an underground auditorium (in the garden) needed, but also that below-grade active space below buildings that either had no basements at all or inadequate headroom. Bedrock at Amster Yard, as any of those who endured the lengthy excavation know, is very high. To remove it and leave the old buildings atop it safe and intact was a virtual impossibility, particularly given their neglected condition. Thus, the Landmarks Commission approved, without beforehand notifying the community or conducting public hearings, the near-total demolition of the old Amster Yard. It did impose strict requirements that the replica be exact in every detail, windows, brickwork, the gardens, and the like, to the original. About this the Turtle Bay Association did not learn until the deed was a fait-accompli. Landmarks thereby avoided a probable confrontation and delay not only with us but other concerned preservation groups as well. Land marking and Landmark protection demands complete transparency, and must not be done behind closed doors.

Amster Yard is not the first time the Landmarks Commission has approved replication rather than preservation. Recently the entire metal and glass faÁade of the outstanding Lever House was removed and replaced with a totally new construction that exactly duplicates the original. True, Lever House now looks "new," but in a few years it will appear the same as it did before the faÁade was changed. Similarly, Amster Yard now appears as a just-finished construction. Given some time (particularly to allow the plantings to mature) it will reacquire the patina that was lost.

On its part, the Instituto has complied with its obligations in the fullest so that what we now have is a faithful replica of Amster Yard but not a preserved original. Most important, Turtle Bay has gained a vibrant, internationally renowned educational organization, the Instituto Cervantes, and will once more witness the Amster Yard gates, so long locked to all, flung open to welcome the public.

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The Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community organization.

224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
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