Also called “339” by peaceniks around the world, the three-story loft building is owned by the pacifist A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, which in February retained Cushman & Wakefield to solicit bids for the mixed use/redevelopment site. Its designation could allow a buyer to demolish the building to put up condos or a hotel. The ownership is seeking an outright sale “or one where it could retain two office floors” on the premises, according to Cushman +Wakefield’s press release.
Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the institute, told Bedford + Bowery that the institute’s board had “unanimously” voted to approve the sale of the approximately 9,789-square-foot building and noted that one bidder offered more than $10 million to buy it. She said that the institute’s goal was to “purchase a new Peace Pentagon.”
“I would characterize this as a positive thing,” she said. “Everyone in the building has been working in less than optimal conditions. We want a new peace center where we can continue our mission, a place where people around the world can come and visit. We see this as an opportunity to become more visible.”
Boghosian revealed the $10 million bid to us in April; more recently, she canceled a scheduled interview, citing concerns over confidentiality. We got a similar lack of comment from Peter Muste, a grandson of A.J. Muste, the late Dutch pacifist clergyman and civil rights advocate for whom the institute was named in 1974. It was founded that year as a tax-exempt charity in part to purchase the building from the War Resisters League and it did so in 1978.
For four decades, the rickety edifice, built in 1922, has provided low-rent offices for like-minded groups such as the Socialist Party USA, Global Revolution TV and the Granny Peace Brigade, which occupy space on the second and third floors. It’s located on the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker, down the block from where the Yippies were evicted and replaced by a gym.
Cushman & Wakefield’s press release quoted a broker describing the corner location as one of the most “sought after” in Noho.
Currently, several ground-floor commercial tenants help defray the costs of maintaining the Peace Pentagon, but the building has been plagued with structural flaws and insufficient funds to repair them. “One of the support columns needs more work to fix than we’re able to afford,” Boghosian said.
Indeed, legendary East Village pacifist David McReynolds, a retired field secretary of the War Resisters League and member of the institute’s board of directors, said the building was in “terrible shape and in need of a fundamental rehab” when B+B interviewed him two months ago. He noted it was held together by scaffolding “so things won’t fall off,” adding that the board couldn’t afford at least $1 million in repairs “unless we got a co-developer.”
The scaffolding has been in place as far back as 2007 when an unidentified engineer conducted a survey and found it in need of “structural repairs,” according to Peter Muste when he was chair of the institute’s board of directors. “The building’s condition is not immediately dangerous,” he wrote in a newsletter called Muste Notes. “But we have had to put up scaffolding across the facade and it must remain in place until repairs begin.”
In an article that year, the New York Times reported that the inspection of the Peace Pentagon revealed a sagging support column inside the building and noted that several lintels– structural horizontal blocks that span a space or opening– were deteriorating. The paper quoted Murray Rosenblith, then the institute’s executive director, saying: “Soon we either have to decide that we’re getting out of here or we have to fix it up.”
Since then, the institute has considered a number of options to deal with the crisis and reportedly put the building up for sale in 2010 — only to withdraw it from the market amid cries of protest from tenants and activists calling themselves Friends of 339.
In 2009, Friends of 339 organized a global competition, dubbed “A Call to Action,” urging architects, engineers and artists to “re-imagine” a new Peace Pentagon as a way to bring attention to the plight of the building “and potentially raise money to save it,” said New York architect Nandini Bagchee, one of the organizers and a member of Friends of 339. She said the competition was supported by grants from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Center and drew 50 entries.
“The owners, we were told, did explore options to keep the building but failed to find a solution and in the end decided to sell it,” Bagchee wrote in an email to us. “It’s unfortunate since [the Peace Pentagon] is an institution that has been a staging ground for many actions since 1969.”
Maureen Connor, a Tribeca mixed media artist and activist, was one of three first-place winners in the competition who received a $2,300 cash award. Her proposal, she said, was to bring in a “derelict ocean liner rescued from the ship breaking industry” in Bangladesh to replace the Peace Pentagon and to train laborers from that country to renovate it.
Connor, a co-founder of the Institute for Wishful Thinking, said she and other applicants in the competition were given a tour of the building. “I’m kind of shocked that the building is still standing,” she said. “And I’m surprised that other older buildings in that neighborhood aren’t falling apart. So many buildings get compromised by all the construction that’s going on.”
Although there appears to be little opposition to a sale of the Peace Pentagon these days, left-wing anarchist writer Bill Weinberg, who lives in Noho and once led forums in the building for the Libertarian Book Club, said he would “feel terrible” if it relocated to another neighborhood. “It’s been a big part of my life and an anchor for all sorts of progressive movements,” he said. He went on to single out the War Resisters League, which was founded in 1923 and has been in the building since 1968: “WRL’s politics aren’t precisely mine at this point, but I’d feel a tremendous sense of loss if they abandoned 339.”
But Rosenblith, who left the Peace Pentagon in 2008, strongly asserts that his former work place “needs to be sold. It’s not realistic for them to keep it. I was in that building for 25 years and it was always a struggle. There was no imminent danger of it collapsing, but there were some structural issues. It wasn’t built to last.”
Cushman+Wakefield’s press release says that a buyer could seek a special permit for residential development, such as condos, as developers in the district have done after obtaining a variance to build in a neighborhood zoned for manufacturing. But since the building is also in an historic district, any such move by a buyer would require approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and other government agencies, a lengthy process.