Hearings Held on Five Potential Landmarks as Part of Greater East Midtown Plan

Pershing Square in Manhattan. Image Credit: LPC

Pershing Square in Manhattan. Image Credit: LPC

Designations opposed by developers and hoteliers; transit advocates expressed concern that landmarking would prevent improved subway infrastructure and access. On July 19 2016, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held hearings on the potential designations of five possible individual landmarks in the East Midtown area of Manhattan. Twelve items in total were identified by Landmarks as significant historic and architectural resources, as part of the mayoral administration’s Greater East Midtown plan. The plan to revitalize the area is intended to strengthen its position as a commercial district. The plan is expected to entail rezoning for greater density, improvements to transit and public spaces, and funding commitments for improvements and economic growth projects, in addition to the preservation of landmark-worthy fabric. Various stakeholders, including elected officials, business and real estate interests, and labor organizations are informing the plan, and a steering committee released a final report in 2015.

The five buildings considered are the Pershing Square Building, the Graybar Building, the Shelton Hotel, the former Beverly Hotel, and the Hotel Lexington. The designations of all five of the items heard at the July hearing were supported by Manhattan Borough president Gale Brewer. Manhattan Community Board 5 supported all three proposed designation within its boundaries, and its representative stated that the neighborhood faced “enormous development pressure,” and the preservation of significant historic structures was “an important public policy.”

Paimaan Lodhi, of the Real Estate Board of New York, testified in opposition to all of the proposed designations, arguing that the historically and architecturally significant buildings in the area had all already been identified and protected, and the designations of “good but not great” buildings should not prevent improvements to transit conditions and economic development.

The 1923 Pershing Square Building, the first of the items considered, is sited directly across 42nd Street from Grand Central Terminal. The building was built in tandem with the adjoining Bowery Savings Bank, an individual City landmark, together replacing Gran Union Hotel. The Public Services Commission had acquired the property to create a new subway station linking IRT lines with a new Lexington Avenue extension. The subway was constructed with strong foundations so the site could be sold as developable parcel when the station was completed. Because footings were in place before the adoption of the 1916 zoning resolution, it received a variance from setback regulations, and was the last tall building constructed in the City without setbacks.

Designed primarily by John Sloan, working with the firm of York and Sawyer, the building is faced in granite, brick and terra cotta, with northern Italianate motifs like round arched windows and tiled hipped roofs. As it has no setbacks, the building possesses a large light court facing Park Avenue. Landmarks’ Research Department noted that the building, which still hosts multiple subway access points and direct Access to Grand Central Terminal, along with its “fine design and facade treatment,” makes a “significant contribution to the visual variety and richness of East Midtown.”

Architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, an advisor to development firm SL Green, asked landmarks to defer any determination until further study on what impact landmarking would have on planned expansion of subway access and platforms. He urged Landmarks to take a “holistic view” of the area’s renaissance as a hub of creative industries, and the necessity for transit improvements. Transportation consultant Stu Lerner said the existing connections to the subway system at the Pershing Square Building were minimal, non-ADA-compliant, and presented security issues. He said the Pershing Square building needed to be substantially reconfigured to allow improvements to “grossly underserved” transportation needs south of Grand Central. A representative of the Riders Alliance also asked the Commission to withhold a determination designation, stating that the subway station below the building required better access and increased platform space, and expressing concern that landmarking would prevent “vital future transit improvements.”

Borough President Brewer’s representative argued that “preservation serves a legitimate public purpose and is a lasting benefit as fully subway access,” and said that it was possible to “improve subway access within such buildings while preserving them.” The Society for the Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough testified that the building was one of the key elements of the “incomparable cityscape” around Grand Central, and praised the “old-world humanistic touch” of the building’s design, complementing its function as a practical transportation hub. Representatives of the Municipal Arts Society, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and the Historic Districts Council also spoke in support of designation.

The Graybar Building in Manhattan. Image Credit: LPC.

The Graybar Building in Manhattan. Image Credit: LPC.

The Graybar Building, at 420 Lexington Avenue, was constructed in 1927 as part of “Terminal City,” a planning initiative by the railroad to develop the area around Grand Central with ancillary structures like hotels, inspired by the City Beautiful movement. The office building was designed in the Art Deco and Byzantine Revival style by the architectural firm of Sloan and Robertson, and conforms to the 1916 zoning resolution, with a stepped massing. The building is decorated at the street level, with stone relief figures framing its three portals, representing the four classical elements. At the south portal, metal rats climb the struts supporting the center marquee, which architect John Sloan said were intended to recall the maritime natures of New York City commerce.

Robert Schiffer, Managing Director at SL Green, which leases the building, said there were no plans to tear down the building, and landmark designation would impose an unnecessary burden. Schiffer further argued that the building did not possess the architectural significance of an individual landmark.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Alex Herrera said the Graybar Building was “essential to Midtown East,” and served as an “emblem of New York’s commercial growth between the wars.” Lisa Easton, speaking for the Art Deco Society of New York, said the Graybar Building was a “critical part of the Grand Central–area context,” and an “exceptional example of Art Deco architecture” in the City. Barbara Zay, of the Historic Districts Council, noted that the Graybar was possibly the largest office building in the world at the time of its construction.

The 1923 Shelton Hotel, designed Arthur Loomis Harmon, was one of the first buildings to successfully conform to the massing requirement of the 1916 zoning resolution, and was used as a model for subsequent skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building. The building, at 525 Lexington Avenue, displays Romanesque Revival detail at the lower stories, with a two-story limestone base, and corbelled friezes above alternately flush and recessed bays. Above the base, the architects avoided significant stylistic detail, with its complex massing of three setbacks, central tower, plus a slightly convex facade echoing the shape of classical pillars, to create its own iconic form. The building served as a subject for painter Georgia O’Keefe and architectural draftsman Hugh Ferriss.

A representative of the owners of the hotel, now the New York Marriott East Side, endorsed designation, to protect its economic viability as well as the integrity of its historic fabric. A representative of Manhattan Community Board 6 spoke in support of designation, as did Tara Kelly of the Municipal Art Society, who called its “one of the most prominent and innovative Terminal City hotels.”

The Beverly Hotel, which stands at 557 Lexington Avenue, was built in 1927 to designs by architect Emery Roth. Roth was the lead architect behind multiple other individual City landmarks, including the Ritz Tower, the Belleclaire Hotel, and the San Remo Apartments. The Neo-Romanesque hotel features a two-story arcaded limestone base, while the upper stories, composed of a series of setbacks are brick. The building is topped with an octagonal tower with a pagoda-shaped cap. The hotel is ornamented stylized motifs like sculptures of birds and warrior-head corbels. Explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd was at one time a resident of the hotel.

Kramer Levin Attorney Valerie Campbell testified on behalf of the owners, arguing that building was among Roth’s secondary works, had undergone significant interventions, and was in deteriorated condition. Campbell said the building was poorly configured for modern hotel use, that landmarking would constitute a significant financial and operational burden, and further, that there were other hotels in the City more worthy of Landmarks’ attention. Declan Fitzpatrick, a Vice President at Denihan Hospitality Group, stated that the building’s base had undergone heavy alterations, that windows needed replacing, and designation would be an “unreasonable regulatory burden” on the business.

Alex Herrera, of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said the Beverly was one of Roth’s “finest buildings of the period,” while HDC’s Barbara Zay praised its “eclectic pseudo-Renaissance” design.

Hotel Lexington. Image Credit: LPC

Hotel Lexington. Image Credit: LPC

The final Midtown item considered by Landmarks at the hearing was the Hotel Lexington, at 511 Lexington Avenue. The building was designed by the firm of Schultze and Weaver, prominent architects of hotels of the period, whose other work included the Waldorf-Astoria. The neo-Romanesque building is massed with ornamented setbacks leading up to two pyramidal towers, faced in brick and terra cotta, with a limestone base. The Hotel Lexington drew immediate praise from architectural critics at the time of its completion in 1929, praised in magazines like Architectural Forum and the New Yorker. For a period, the building was home to the Polynesian-themed Hawaii Room, which featured Hula dance and Hawaiian music.

A representative of the hotel’s owners, Diamondrock Hospitality, voiced concern maintaining the building under Landmark regulation, and said it lacked the history, integrity or special characteristics to merit individual landmark designation. He said the organization wished to retain the option to redevelop the property, and added that the hotel’s exterior had undergone sweeping alterations.

A representative of Manhattan Community Board 6 testified in favor of designation. Municipal Art Society’s Tara Kelly called the building a “significant contributor to Terminal City’s ‘hotel alley,’” and the Historic Districts Council identified the “beautifully carved limestone arch” entrance for particular praise. Support for designation was also expressed by the Art Deco Society and the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Landmarks Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that she expected to dispose of all of the Midtown East items by the end of the year, and scheduled the hearings on the remaining seven items for September 13.

LPC: Pershing Square Building, 125 Park Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2556); Graybar Building, 420 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2554); 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) (July, 19, 2016).

By:  Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law)

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