Lying dormant behind its fake brick façade, the West Market Diner looks ready to weather a storm-and it may have to.
Situated at the far end of West 131 Street, the diner falls within the property Columbia has designated for its expansion, and has been owned by Columbia for two years. The vulnerability of its location has local historians hoping that recognition of its historical merit will protect the diner from destruction.
"We can already say that if [Columbia University] turns to eminent domain, the diner will be taken up for review by the state historic commission," said Carolyn Kent, of Community Board 9's Landmarks Committee.
The West Market Diner is eligible for listing on state and national historic registers, which would afford it some protection as an historic landmark. But as its owner, Columbia has not requested that the diner be listed, giving the University more flexibility in its expansion plans.
Bought with the intention of being leased to a tenant, the diner has remained closed following an unsuccessful search that apparently is still in progress, according to Columbia spokeswoman Liz Golden.
Before the tremors of gentrification spread up the West Side, the West Market Diner had the classic streamlined look of diners in Edward Hopper paintings. Built in the 1920s, the diner sits on land once occupied by Mrs. Parker's Logger House-an eatery from the Civil War era. With its proximity to the Hudson, the diner mainly served the community of waterfront workers, who kept odd hours and needed quick meals. But what gives it historical value is not so much its early conception, but its famous creator.
Patrick Tierney is known as the architect of the modern diner. He took the idea of an all-night meal cart and opened a factory to produce portable chrome diners. With time, the wheels came off and the diners became community fixtures, though the West Market Diner is one of the few Tierney-produced diners that survive.
"There are a lot of diners that call themselves diners, but aren't," said Eric Washington, a Manhattanville historian and author. Numerous Tierney-style diners became iconic in the 1950s for their railroad-car look, but were soon supplanted by the fast food industry. Still, the diner atmosphere has not lost its following.
"Diners are very sexy now," said Washington. "You can get the very sort of happening in-crowd at night and the working crowd in the morning. Traditionally diners have always been where the different classes sort of rub elbows."
In the late 1960s the West Market Diner was owned by William Lolis, who was part of a generation of Greek diner owners. During the 38 years he owned the diner, Lolis said it drew crowds from the neighborhood, which at the time was the center of the meat packing industry.
The diner now crouches in relative obscurity opposite the comparatively boisterous Dinosaur BBQ. Within the Manhattanville community, talk has surfaced of Columbia relocating the diner.
"It's not a bad solution," said Kent. But Washington disagreed.
"The diner is one of those things community representatives want to see stay and get fixed up. It's an anchor to much of the area's history."