Designation Should Not Mean Demolition

Jeffrey A. Kroessler

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has calendared the AT&T Building at 550 Madison Avenue for a public hearing. As well it should. Designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the skyscraper with a distinctive Chippendale top was the first post-modern addition to the skyline when completed in 1984. It is as emblematic of its time as the Woolworth Building (Cass Gilbert, 1913) and the Chrysler Building (William Van Allen, 1930).

To the dismay of the architectural and preservation communities, the Commission has declined to include the lobby in the designation. This is inexplicable. It also breaks precedent. In 1978, the Commission designated the Chrysler Building, both the exterior and the glorious Art Deco lobby. In 1983, the Woolworth Building was designated, again, both the exterior and the richly appointed Gothic lobby.

The Commission has offered its reasons for rejecting out of hand the AT&T lobby. None is convincing. Some are untrue.

To be clear: the lobby is just as designed by Johnson and Burgee. When the building opened, the lobby featured as its centerpiece “Spirit of Communication,” better known a “Golden Boy.” The 24-foot statue had stood atop the company’s old headquarters downtown at 195 Broadway. In 1992, AT&T sold the building at 550 Madison to SONY and removed the piece to its new suburban campus in New Jersey. The statue graced the lobby for only 8 years.

Other than that, the lobby is intact. The Landmarks Commission says otherwise. “In our evaluation the lobby does not hold the same level of broad significance,” explained Kate Lemos McHale, Director of Research at the LPC, and with “the removal of ‘Golden Boy,’ alterations within the lobby itself, and its diminished relationship to the overall design of the base, we have determined that it does not rise to the level of an interior landmark.”

This is blather. The alterations are cosmetic. What makes the Commission’s refusal on such pedantic grounds even more infuriating is that they have routinely approved much more destructive alterations to designated landmarks.

Recently the LPC designed two other modernist landmarks, the Citicorp Tower (Hugh Stubbins & Associates, 1978) and the Ambassador Grill (Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates, 1976). With Citicorp, the Commission approved the evisceration of the sunken plaza and fountain designed by Hideo Sasaki’s firm. With the Ambassador Grill, the designation cut out a significant portion of the whole. Both decisions compromised the integrity of the landmark.

This commission has forgotten that the client is the building, not the owner. Their mandate is to protect our city’s historic architecture, and the law does not require owner consent (though the commission has rarely designated without it).

Mike Holmgren, former coach of the Green Bay Packers, famously offered the “50 guys in a bar” standard: if 50 guys in a bar say it’s a catch, it’s a catch. To which I offer: if 50 architects, historians, preservationists, and concerned New Yorkers say it’s a landmark, it’s a landmark. Madam Chair, hold a hearing.

– Jeffrey Kroessler, City Club of New York



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