HDC@LPC – Testimony for LPC Hearing on June 19, 2018

HDC regularly reviews every public proposal affecting Individual Landmarks and buildings within Historic Districts in New York City, and when needed, we comment on them. Our testimony for the latest items to be presented at the Landmarks Preservation Commission is below.

Item 1

LP-2600

BOROUGH OF MANHATTAN

550 MADISON AVENUE (FORMER AT&T CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS BUILDING LATER SONY BUILDING), 550 Madison Avenue – aka 550-570 Madison Avenue, 13-29 East 55th Street, 14-28 East 56th Street

For roughly two decades after World War II, Madison Avenue north of Grand Central saw a flurry of office building development that put the neighborhood at the center of the city’s cutting-edge post-war building boom. When the construction of a new headquarters for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company on Madison Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets was announced in 1977, the neighborhood was largely built up and the city was in the midst of a financial crisis. A major construction project such as this was unexpected.

The design of the building, though, was perhaps even more unexpected. Its unapologetic postmodern design was replete with nods to Classical architectural forms and materials, shunning Modernism’s trend for boxy glass and steel. The design was met with robustly negative criticism from leading architecture critics, including Ada Louise Huxtable, who wrote that “…it has neither genuine quirkiness nor real style. In spite of some passing shock value, this is a dull building—a pedestrian pastiche pulled together by painstaking, polished details.” The building employs a Classical tripartite form, with a base, shaft and capital. The original base – later altered by Gwathmey Siegel in 1994 – was dominated by a 110-foot-tall arch framing a covered loggia, and the capital is a massively scaled, thirty-foot-tall broken pediment. The 37-story tower was clad in rough-hewn pink Stony Creek granite, a popular stone in neo-Classical architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New York. These over-scaled and simplified Classical forms were considered gimmicky at the time. However, upon the building’s completion in 1984, critics were surprisingly happy with the results, largely due to the grand public space provided at the building’s base, which was considered a gift to the street. Interestingly, the LPC’s consideration of the AT&T Building as the city’s newest Individual Landmark followed recent controversy and public outcry over plans to irreparably alter the building’s base: clearly, a feature still beloved by New Yorkers.

Today, the building is considered by many to be the most iconic work of postmodernism in the city, and, despite one’s personal feelings about postmodernism or this particular architectural ensemble, it is undoubtedly a remarkable building that speaks to its time of construction. The AT&T Building captured a moment in architectural design, when architects were looking for new ways to express monumentality that didn’t put pure functionality above all else. As this building comes of age, its significance to the world of architecture and to the skyline of New York City have become apparent, and we thank the Commission for recognizing this and safeguarding its future.


Item 1

877 Southern Boulevard – Individual Landmark – Hunts Point Public Library

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1926059

A Classical style library building designed by Carrère & Hastings and built in 1929. Application is to install a rooftop stair bulkhead, rooftop mechanical equipment, replace windows, and install barrier-free access ramps.

In the early 1980s, the original windows of this library were removed and replaced with square-headed aluminum sash, which the head librarian at the time described as “a disaster.” While the designation report did not name this librarian by name, we hope that she or he could see this laudable proposal before the Commission today. HDC applauds the thoughtful restoration of Carrere & Hastings’ original window artistry executed in quality, durable materials. These windows’ design brings this individual landmark back to its former grandeur.


Item 2

281 Park Avenue South – Individual Landmark – Church Missions House

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1926124

A Gothic style religious and charitable-institution building designed by Robert Williams Gibson and Edward J. Neville Stent and built in 1892-94. Application is to remove a stained glass window, modify a fire stair, and construct a rear elevator enclosure and rooftop mechanical additions.

HDC found the elevator expansion sensitive and cleverly done, with no overrun and essentially zero visibility from the intervention. While we understand that the large stained glass window will be compromised by this project, we conceded that it was never publicly visible as it was on a secondary façade. We are pleased that it is being dismantled and restored, but were puzzled by where it will be relocated to. HDC hopes that the window will be reinstalled within the building in a prominent place, backlit, so that it can enjoy new life and remain inside the building it was created especially for.


Item 3

186 Fifth Avenue – Ladies’ Mile Historic District

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1926073

A Queen Anne style office building designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh and built in 1883. Application is to replace the storefront and install signage.

The ground floor of the former Western Union Building in Ladies’ Mile has dulled in comparison with the many opulent, restored storefronts of the historic district for years. HDC is pleased to see that this will finally change, but we strongly believe that a storefront intervention here should not merely clean up and unify the current disaster, but actually be a substantial improvement. Unquestionably, the Ladies’ Mile Historic District is one of the most important commercial storefront districts in the city. So much so, that over the years, the LPC has required new infill buildings, including residential, to appear mercantile in nature.

The drawings packet submitted for this application show some of the exquisite examples of storefronts that typify the district, and we do not believe the current design, executed in anodized aluminum, is quite appropriate for this prominent corner. This building has frontages on both Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, two of the main thoroughfares of Ladies’ Mile. Its direct neighbor is the Flatiron Building, and it faces Flatiron Plaza, Madison Square Park and the opulent Fifth Avenue Building. This crucial corner deserves a dignified storefront treatment, and we believe one of the keys to this solution is to once again echo the piers on the ground floor. Lining up the storefronts within the piers and referencing them on a pedestrian level will amplify the powerful rhythm of this building. HDC also suggests that the finished storefront be painted in an historic color.


Item 4

600 West End Avenue – Riverside – West End Historic District

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1924505

A neo-Renaissance style apartment building designed by Schwartz and Gross and built in 1910-11. Application is to install HVAC equipment.

Showing all of the pock marks made by through-wall systems on this building only makes the case for how hideous these punctures in the façades actually are. HDC believes that with some creativity, this unit could be relocated somewhere other than where it is proposed. In examining this building, it became apparent that there are also many units of different types set within window openings on both facades, and this is a reversible option that also will not destroy masonry.


Item 5

341 West 87th Street – Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1921667

A Renaissance Revival style rowhouse designed by Alexander M. Welch and built in 1895-96. Application is to replace a door and transom.

HDC was disappointed to not have even a mere tax photo to reference while evaluating this proposal, which may have informed a better design. While the new doors are an improvement, the loss of the transom is not. We suggest installing the new doors with a transom light to create a better proportioned opening, especially a prominent one on the front façade.


Item 9

125 West 120th Street – Mount Morris Park Extension Historic District

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1922442

A Renaissance Revival/Romanesque Revival style rowhouse designed by Theodore E. Thomson and built c. 1895-96. Application is to construct rear yard additions.

HDC asks that the Commission contemplate very seriously what will be the first rear yard incursion within a pristine block in the Mount Morris Park Historic District. It is impressive that none have appeared not only since the construction of these homes over a century ago, but also not one since they were designated in 1971. HDC leans towards reducing the rear yard addition by at least one story, and that the Commission move forward knowing that whatever is ultimately approved for this block will set the future precedent for bulk.


Item 12

630 Bergen Street – Prospect Heights Historic District

CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS, Docket #1923891

A Romanesque Revival style flats building designed by Timothy A. Remsen and built c. 1894 Application is to legalize the replacement of windows without Landmarks Preservation Commission permits

HDC believes this legalization has stood for some time by the deterioration of the alterations of the windows. Since there are wooden brick molds surviving, we hope that these features can be preserved and retained for the next intervention. We ask that whatever future windows are installed here, that they do not accelerate the further deterioration of the brick molds as is the current case.

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