The Lady and the Landmark

Ethel Bates wants a cooking school in the historic Corn Exchange. The city just tore part of it down ♦

An architect’s 1833 drawing of the Corn Exchange. (Photo courtesy

Until she starts talking, Ethel Bates looks like anyone’s grandmother with her maroon windbreaker, a dun scarf wrapped turbanlike around her head. Short, forceful and sharp as a whip, this energetic 77-year-old community activist has spent much of the last decade in court – mostly pitted against various city departments. “She’s a little dynamo,” says Garry Johnson, Community Board 11’s treasurer and Economic Development Committee chair.

Johnson’s architecture consultancy on 125th Street looks right over the Corn Exchange, a landmark building that is the locus of Ethel Bates’ legal struggles. From the street, the 126-year-old red brick building decorated with ornate white masonry looks to be in good shape, though cosseted with scaffolding. From Johnson’s window, though, the building’s dilapidated innards present quite a contrast to the ordered lines of the adjacent Metro North station.

The building after demolition began in September. (Photo by Tim Kiladze)

The city is in the midst of carrying out an “emergency demolition” of the five-story building’s top three floors. Since 2003, Bates has officially been in charge of renovating this building, one of 125th Street’s scattered 19th-century landmarks. Bates, who harbors an above-average suspicion of government, claims that the disrepair is due not so much to neglect on her part as to obfuscation by the city and to the Department of Buildings’s “secret agenda.”

The Corn Exchange was built, in the Queen Anne and Romanesque-style, as the Mount Morris Bank by architects Lamb & Lamb. With well-appointed apartments on its upper levels (it earlier had seven stories, with gables at the top), the building later became the Corn Exchange, a bank that eventually merged with JP Morgan. Used briefly as a church, the building was abandoned in the 1970s and lay empty for almost 30 years. A fire destroyed the decaying upper levels before Bates decided to adopt the Corn Exchange as the site for a pioneer culinary school in upper Manhattan.

The Economic Development Corp. had doubts when Bates first approached the city with her proposal in 1999. “I wasn’t anybody as far as they were concerned,” Bates said. Bates said she got a boost from developer Lew Rudin, who put in a cameo appearance for her at an EDC meeting – “you would have thought a saint had walked in, or God himself.” Bates eventually landed an appointment with then-deputy mayor Rudy Washington.

Washington had “heard on the one hand that here was this elderly woman that had a good heart but who didn’t know squat and it would be a disaster to let her have this building,” Bates recalled. “On the other hand she was a person who had these certain merits.” Impressed by Bates’s personality and business acumen (she had studied business at New York University and City College), Washington told Bates that he was on her side.

So she was surprised to find that the building had suddenly been auctioned off to Elie Hirschfeld (son of Abraham), who she said just wanted to sell it back to her for three times the cost. Bates sued the city. It took a year for the decision, but she won her case as well as control over the Corn Exchange. In 2003, Bates held the property deed with a promise to develop the building in three years.

It wasn’t the first time Bates had sued New York. In the 1980s, she was involved in the restoration of Marcus Garvey Park. She sued the parks department after she was handcuffed by some of their officers.

Ethel Bates speaking at a Town Hall meeting (Photo by Edmund J. Eng)

Bates’ dream of opening a culinary school stemmed from a long history with foreign travel, food and art. Bates was born in Birmingham, Ala., but moved to New York with her father, a railway employee, her mother and her six siblings when she was a child. After college, Bates traveled to Europe and lived in France, England and Italy for several years. She worked as a contract negotiator for performers and traveled to Israel, Palestine and North Africa. When she returned to New York, she did everything from being an accountant to running a bakery.

Bates wanted to open a culinary institute because she felt that “in this community you have so many people who are able to do some cooking but they can’t compete. They can’t afford the Culinary Institute of America, they can’t afford the French Culinary… you can’t go and compete with somebody who’s got a reputation behind them and all you’ve done is work in a greasy spoon place.”

She was set on this building, “a place that gives you a certain amount of cachet… That’s my idea: save the building and do a culinary institute.” Bates had already signed on Ark Restaurants and several other potential tenants for the New Corn Exchange project.

Finding a developer proved more difficult. While candidates came to her in droves, Bates felt that each was after her valuable property and had no interest in creating a community culinary institute. Her unwillingness to cede equity control kept stalling the project.

Johnson felt Bates bears some responsibility. “I believe she’s had opportunities,” he said. “The real estate boom has come and gone now.” He said he knew of a big-name developer who had offered Bates a 49 percent stake in the building and that she had refused. He also said that the Community Board approached Bates with a proposal financed by its members. If Bates could not find a developer, he said, she should have tried to open the school elsewhere first, so that it could build a track record.

Bates’ account of her dealings with developers over the years is a laundry list of shady proposals and corrupt maneuvers. About once a year, a newspaper would report that restoration was about to begin. But Bates repeatedly wound up in court, fighting with would-be developers who she claimed wanted to wrest control of the building from her. The city held off on taking any action until 2007, when it moved to rescind Bates’ ownership.

Bates said she has spent $300,000 of her own money fighting cases and paying various fines the city imposed. She also arranged for the protective scaffolding that surrounds the Corn Exchange. Eventually, Bates filed for bankruptcy in order to restrategize. “We fought it nip-and-tuck,” she said.

Bates lost her plea for bankruptcy and the matter reverted to Supreme Court, where a judge ruled in January that the city could take over the building in a non-final disposition. The city claimed that the building was a danger to pedestrians and the 125th Street station and moved to tear down its top floors. Demolition began in early September, but Bates still hasn’t given up. She says her legal status is “sensitive,” but that she hasn’t given up on regaining control.

There is a discrepancy between the Court’s ruling that the deed revert to the city and an April 20 letter asking Bates’ group to take immediate action on repair and demolition. The letter stated that if Bates failed to take action, the city would move to demolish and “recover its expenses from you.” This summer, Assemblyman Adam C. Powell wrote to the Economic Development Corporation strongly backing Bates. The advocacy group Historic Districts Council wrote to Deputy Mayor Edward Skylar in August, stating that council members had visited the building and found the proposed emergency demolition unfounded. The members asked the mayor to intercede until “a more experienced developer can be found.”

The Corn Exchange in its heyday, circa the 1920s or 1930s. Until recently, the building had five of its original seven stories. (Photo courtesy

The demolition of the Corn Exchange’s top stories may have been drastic. Calling for an emergency demolition allowed the Building Department to bypass authorization from the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the name of public safety. In an April field report, investigators cited loose bricks in various places, but maintained that the protective scaffolding around the building was sound. Johnson, for one, believes that demolishing three floors was overkill and that the fifth floor is the only one that really had to go. “As an architect, I believe those are load-bearing walls,” he said.

Bates suspects that the city will wait, then propose another demolition and eventually hand the building over to a prominent developer. Developer Vornado owns the lot across the street and the Corn Exchange is prime property, with empty lots and the train station just next door.

If the building is restored by the city or someone else rather than commercially developed, it may never be profitable. Real estate agent Eugene Giscombe, whose office overlooks the Corn Exchange, thinks the building is “economically obsolete.” He estimated that even if the Corn Exchange were raised to 10 stories, the cost of building (about $13.5 million) would be far beyond the recoverable yearly rent ($1.35 million). Giscombe believes the only commercial solution would be to combine that lot with others around it. If the building remains a low-rise, he said, the landlord might be able to get tax incentives to rent to a non-profit.

In all this controversy, the building’s historical significance has been largely overshadowed. Johnson thinks the city should have better preserved the building’s shell. He pointed to the example of a mental asylum on Roosevelt Island that has been kept intact pending future development.

“Had it been in the Upper West Side or Upper East Side there would have been meltdown,” he said. “People would have been screaming bloody murder. This wouldn’t have happened. It just shows a complete disregard for the community.”

Originally published in The Uptowner, November 17, 2009.