Hearing were held on twelve buildings over two meetings, with vary degrees of opposition— Citicorp Center Complex will be voted on separately at a later date. On November 22, 2016, Landmarks voted to designate eleven buildings in the Midtown area as individual City landmarks. Public testimony on the buildings was considered at two meetings on July 19 and September 13 of 2016. Landmarks undertook the surveying of the area as part of a mayoral program to strengthen and revitalize East Midtown as a commercial core. The initiative is expected to entail zoning for greater density, improvements to public spaces and mass transit, and commitments to economic-growth plans.
Landmarks staff identified three periods of significant development in the area; the pre-Grand Central terminal era; the period of intense development following the construction of Grand Central and other transit improvements; and the modern, post-World War II era.
At the hearings, a representative of the Real Estate Board of New York made a statement in wholesale oppositioban to the proposed designations, arguing that the significant historical resources of the area had already been identified and protected, and historic preservation of the buildings under consideration should not hinder improvements to transit and economic growth. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer strongly supported the preservation of all the properties.
At the November meeting, Landmarks Executive Director Sarah Carroll stated that any designations by the commission would go hand in hand with ensuring that rail and subway connections “remain viable long into the future,” an intention that would be memorialized in designation reports.
The 1900 Minnie E. Young House, at 19 East 54th Street, dates to the area’s time as an upper-class residential neighborhood. Originally built as home by the heiress to the American Tobacco Company fortune, it later served as headquarters for celebrity hairdresser Kenneth Battelle, known as Mr. Kenneth, whose clientele included Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. Two additional, setback, stories were added to the building in 1993. No specific opposition was voiced at the September hearing, and preservationist organizations testified in support of landmarking.
The Martin Erdmann Residence, a Renaissance Revival Townhouse completed in 1909, stands at 57 East 55th Street. Erdmann, a banker, built the structure as a home, and for a place to display his extensive collection of antiques. Today the building is best known as the clubhouse for the Friars Club, a social club known for its entertainment-business membership. Friars Club members know the building as “The Monastery.” The Historic Districts Council testified in favor of designation.
The 1929 400 Madison Avenue Building, designed by H. Craig Severance, exemplifies tiered “wedding cake” profile popular after the passage of the zoning resolution. Though it occupies a full blockfront along Madison Avenue, it is only 50 feet deep, allowing all interior spaces access to an exterior wall. The neo-Gothic building is clad in white terra cotta. Representatives of the Municipal Art Society, The Historic Districts Council and the New York Landmarks Conservancy all testified in support of designation.
The Hampton Shops Building at 18 East 50th Street, was built in a neo-Gothic style to complement the nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The eleven-story building, completed in 1916, was part of the first wave of skyscraper development, and predates the 1916 zoning code and its mandated setbacks. It was constructed primarily for retail use, possessing eleven showroom galleries. The company when bankrupt in 1938, and the interior was subdivided. Except for some alterations at the ground floor, the exterior remains entirely intact. No testimony opposing designation was made at the September hearing.
Yale Club President Dev Gandhi heartily endorsed designation of the Yale Club Building, at 23 East 47th Street when it was heard. The 1915 building was designed by John Gamble Rogers, who was also the architect behind several buildings on the university’s campus. In designing the club, Rogers regularly consulted with the architects of Grand Central Terminal to ensure the buildings would complement each other.
A more contentious hearing surrounded the Pershing Square Building, at 125 Park Avenue, directly facing Grand Central. Consultants to real estate investment firm SL Green urged Landmarks to refrain from taking any action until it was understood what impact designation would have on the planned expansion of subway access and platforms, and claimed that building needed extensive reconfiguration for code compliance, security reasons, and for transportation improvements. Representatives of preservationist organizations testified that the 1923 building designed by John Sloan was historically and aesthetically significant, and that it could be protected without impeding planned improvements to transit.
The 1927 Graybar Building, at 420 Lexington Avenue, was constructed as part of “Terminal City,” a planning program by the railroad to develop the area around Grand Central with hotels and other ancillary structures, inspired by the City Beautiful movement. The Art Deco/Byzantine Revival buildings features monumental stone reliefs surrounding its three portals, consisting of robed figures clutching symbols of the four elements. Metal rats climb the trusses supporting the central marquee, in a gesture to New York’s maritime history and role as a seaport.
SL Green’s Managing Director Robert Schiffer said the building did not rise to the level of an individual landmark, and designation would impose an onerous burden. A representative of the Art Deco Society of New York called the Graybar an “exceptional example of Art Deco architecture.”
Three 1920s hotels were also identified and designated as part of the initiative: the Shelton Hotel, the Beverly Hotel, and the Hotel Lexington. The owners of the 1923 Romanesque Revival Shelton, now named the New York Marriott East Side, endorsed designation, as did Community Board 6. Beyond its architectural interest, the Arthur Loomis Harmon-designed hotel was portrayed in works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Hugh Ferris.
Representatives of the owners of the Beverly, Denihan Hospitality Group, spoke in opposition to its designation, stating that the building was in deteriorated condition, among architect Emery Roth’s lesser works, and that landmarking constituted an unnecessary regulatory burden. Proponents of designation called it an important building of Roth’s, who also designed the Waldorf Astoria.
Representatives of Diamondtrack Hospitality, which owns the Hotel Lexington, were also opposed to their property’s designation. The firm’s representatives said the building had been heavily altered, and the company wished to retain the option of redeveloping the site.
Numerous preservationist organizations as well as the community board supported designation of the 1929 hotel with its two pyramidal towers, ornamented setbacks, and limestone brick and terra cotta cladding
The only item heard from the Modern era, the 1970s Citicorp Center Complex, with its iconic angled roof on the tower at 601 Lexington Avenue, was the only item identified in the Midtown Initiative not brought forward to a vote.
Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron noted that the City was undergoing a “dramatic transformation,” and the streetscape was being visibly transformed. While the presence of demolition sites and new construction indicated the City’s vitality, the designations by Landmarks both individually and in aggregate served to fill a “gaping hole” left by the City’s cycle of destruction and renewal. Commissioner Michael Goldblum said the work by Landmarks staff in east Midtown could serve as a template for how the Commission worked in “complicated places.” Goldblum also found that that Midtown Initiative provided evidence that cooperation between Landmarks and City Planning should be systemically integrated. He also said the City should contemplate a mechanism for preserving view corridors.
Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said she believed historic preservation was critical to the future of the “premier central business district.” She said the designations would help memorialize the area’s development, preserve the “iconic urban experience” of Midtown, and continue the tradition of the “old coexisting with the new.” She further noted that mass transit had been an integral part of the neighborhood’s history and development, and would could continue to do so looking forward, unimpeded by the designations. She concluded the “multi-agency effort” surrounding the Midtown Initiative demonstrated that preservation and planning can work hand-in-hand.
All eleven items were unanimously approved by the commissioners present.
LPC: Minnie E. Young Residence, 19 East 54th Street, Manhattan (LP-2577); Martin Erdmann Residence, 57 East 55th Street, Manhattan (LP-2578); 15 East 41st Street Building, 18 East 41st Street, Manhattan (LP-2581); Hampton Shops Building, 18 East 50th Street, Manhattan (LP-2580); Yale Club of New York City, 50 Vanderbilt Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2579); Pershing Square Building, 125 Park Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2556); Graybar Building, 420 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2554); 400 Madison Avenue Building, 400 Madison Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2576); Shelton Hotel, 525 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2557); Beverly Hotel, 125 East 50th Street, Manhattan (LP-2555); Hotel Lexington, 511 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2559) (November 22, 2016).
By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).