Shared History: Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen Divvy Donated Design Elements

Winged markers once placed at the entrance ramp of the West Side Highway will grace outdoor spaces in Chelsea as well as Hell’s Kitchen. | Photo by Christian Miles

BY WINNIE McCROY |Parks in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen will now have a common design thread running through them, thanks to the conciliatory actions of the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) and the neighborhood group Hell’s Kitchen Generations (HKG). A June 2 protest rally organized by HKG was canceled when HRPT agreed to share some historically significant statuary salvaged from a Hell’s Kitchen slaughterhouse. Now, Chelsea Waterside Park and (pending Parks Department approval) DeWitt Clinton Park can showcase the limestone cow’s and ram’s heads.

“We are getting two of the ram’s heads and some remnants of the ‘collars,’ the places where the animals were cast onto the sides of the building, as well as some other pieces,” said Michelle Diaz, the longtime resident who organized Hell’s Kitchen Generations, in a June 7 phone interview. “We’re also getting a couple of those winged ramp markers from the old West Side Highway. I just heard back from Hudson River Park Trust, and they are sending the rams back to a space on 12th Avenue and 54th St. [DeWitt Clinton Park], where [City Council Speaker] Corey Johnson’s office suggested they go.”

“These artifacts have a strong connection to the local history of Hell’s Kitchen,” said Speaker Johnson, “and I am very happy that Hudson River Park is making them available for future generations to enjoy in Hell’s Kitchen. My office is working with local residents, NYC Parks, Community Board 4 (CB4), and other stakeholders to discuss potential locations for the placement of the sculptures. I’m thankful to the local residents who are great stewards of our past.”

A spokesperson for HRPT said that members of the Trust were very happy to have been able to work with the community to come to this compromise. “When we rescued the architectural relics from the New York Butchers’ Dressed Meat Building from auction in 2012,” said James Yolles, “we had no idea where they would end up. We are grateful that through this process, we have been introduced to the Hell’s Kitchen Generations group, which will help ensure that the ram’s heads and the remnant of their decorative architectural frames remain a part of Hell’s Kitchen’s rich history for all to enjoy.”

A limestone ram’s head statue that was saved from the old New York Butchers’ Dressed Meat Company building will be returned to Hell’s Kitchen | Photo by Michelle Diaz

HK HISTORY AT STAKE | In the mid- to late 19th century, local slaughterhouses were often decorated with architectural animal ornamentation. The pieces in question — four limestone steer heads and two ram heads, each about four feet tall and weighing more than a ton each — were salvaged from the New York Butchers’ Dressed Meat Company Building on 11th Ave. between W. 39th and 40th Sts. — the area Diaz dubs the ‘meathacking’ district, on account of the slaughterhouses there. When the building was torn down in the early ’90s, the statuary ended up in a Williamsburg warehouse, along with other relics the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) had salvaged.

When LPC had to put up its holdings for public action in 2011, they doled out two steer heads and two ram’s heads, a garlanded medallion, and the slaughterhouse’s 30-foot limestone sign to Clinton Housing Development Company (CHDC), and two cow’s heads and two ram’s heads to HRPT, for the nominal fee of $250. There were also two Art Deco winged carvings that once stood at the entrance ramps to the West Side Highway, formerly called Miller Highway when built in 1933.

“There were six pieces in total, and when Landmarks was about to auction everything off, I by chance read about it in the New York Times, and asked then-Speaker Christine Quinn to intervene,” remembered CHDC Executive Director Joe Restuccia, who has been a vocal advocate for preserving this statuary since 1989. “They auctioned four pieces to Hudson River Park Trust, and four to Clinton Housing: two cow’s heads and a medallion, and the sign for New York Butchers’ Dressed Meat Company Building. We also have the cornerstone from when the building was first built.”

For years, HRPT’s statuary sat in wooden crates in an old lot in Hudson River Park near W. 34th St., just south of the New York Police Department tow pound; the CHDC’s pieces were kept in a garage on W. 53rd St.

But now, all of the reclaimed pieces will end up in West Side green spaces. Restuccia said that CHDC will put their pieces in local community gardens, including the Adam’s Garden at 544 W. 53rd St., and Captain Post Garden at 560 W. 52nd St. Both are community gardens, developed as part of affordable housing projects. Restuccia said that the first is under construction, and the second will begin construction in 2019.

Although he still regrets that CHDC couldn’t save the original slaughterhouse building, he’s pleased that they were able to rescue this statuary and very happy to see these pieces returned to the public view. Restuccia laughed when he recalled first moving the sculptures into storage. Thinking they were made of concrete, the CHDC had secured a truck with a boom to move the statuary. But when they attempted to load the cow’s heads and the truck tipped, the movers realized the statues were made of limestone, and weighed more than a ton. They had to go back and get a bigger truck.

The pieces were intentionally made big enough so they could be seen from the ground, even when mounted to the top floor of the slaughterhouse. Once upon a time, cattle traveled via an underground cow path reputed to be hidden under 11th Ave., and then walked up a ramp to the roof of the New York Butchers’ Dressed Meat Company Building, where they munched on grass in the open air until it was time for them to be butchered.

The sculptures were secured to the six-story slaughterhouse from the roof, and will now come to these green spaces complete with the limestone ‘collar’ that once attached it to that building. Restuccia noted that they will be reassembled in their entirety at these community gardens.

Chelsea Waterside Park is being redesigned for community use. | Photo by Christian Miles

“I’m shocked and amazed, because these things have been orphaned for the longest time, so for them to get not only one home but four homes, all of which are accessible to the public, is great,” said Restuccia. “And these are absolute neighborhood artifacts of our industrial neighborhood; there is no question about that.”

HRPT DOES RIGHT BY HKG | In a display of forward-thinking generosity, HRPT was quick to accede to HKG’s request to return the statuary to its neighborhood of origin. They shared half of the statuary they had, delivering it to Hell’s Kitchen within days. Now, many West Side green spaces will share these unified design elements.

“They could have been jerks about it, because they did acquire the pieces in a private auction, even though they only paid $250 to transport them to their park,” said Diaz. “But we saw that they took these items to salvage them, instead of having them dumped or discarded. And then when the person who was designing Chelsea Waterside Park saw them, he was inspired to use them in his design for that 23rd Street Park.”

Plans for the redesign of CWP had been circulating for quite some time, as reported in a Nov. 16, 2016 Chelsea Now article. Scott Streeb of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. had tackled the redesign, presenting several water play areas for kids that would feature this repurposed statuary transformed into spray fountains.

But it wasn’t until a member of Hell’s Kitchen Generations happened by the designs for Chelsea Waterside Park at 12th Ave. and W. 23rd St., and recognized that the statuary hailed from his neighborhood that he contacted Diaz to make her aware of the situation.

“We had to act fast, because these pieces were being packed up to move. I decided to plan a June 2 rally and I emailed HRPT to let them know,” said Diaz. “They got back to me the day before the rally and said that they had had a discussion, and decided to give us back the majority of pieces, with the exception of two cow’s heads. They could have said, ‘We own this, tough luck on you,’ but instead they changed the design, and also gave us the winged West Side Highway pieces.”

Although all of the cow’s and ram’s head statuary was intended to be repurposed as part of Chelsea Waterside Park’s “water maze” area (as seen in this 2016 rendering), they will now share some of it with other West Side parks. | File image courtesy of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

Diaz cancelled the rally, and was very happy at the good faith efforts HRPT made toward sharing the historical statues. She said that Hell’s Kitchen activists recognized the group was working under honorable intentions to improve local parks.“They could have used some prefabricated animal head, so we know they meant to give new life to those old pieces,” said Diaz. “We realized from the beginning that they were trying to salvage the pieces that LPC couldn’t hold onto anymore and wanted to give them to places that would treat them the right way. They couldn’t know we wanted them.”

But Diaz said they were more than happy to split the statuary, especially since CB4 and CHDC have two additional cow’s heads and some other pieces. She hopes that the provenance of the pieces featured in CWP will be marked with a plaque or other marker.

“We felt that they were giving these historic pieces a new life by including them in their park design,” said Diaz. “When HRPT said they’d use them in a park, we assumed it would be in a Hell’s Kitchen park. I was thinking Hell’s Kitchen, they were thinking Chelsea. But their intentions were good: to salvage these pieces for the West Side. And all of the West Side’s parks will be connected now.”

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