Iconic Postmodern Tower Takes Step Toward Individual Landmark Designation

AT&T Building. Image credit: LPC.

Proponents of revitalization stressed need for adaptability in redeveloping currently vacant building, others lamented destruction of lobby, and urged Landmarks to maintain oversight of entire lot. On June 19, 2018, Landmarks held a public hearing on the potential designation of the former AT&T Corporate Headquarters at 550 Madison Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. The 37-foot-tall tower was completed in 1984 and designed by Philip Johnson, recipient of a 1979 Pritzker Prize, and John Burgee. An early significant work of postmodern architecture, in the Headquarters Johnson and Burgee, rejected the unadorned glass curtain walls of International Style modernism, exemplified in New York by the Seagram Building. The building is clad in masonry and employs historicist quotations, including its famous pediment recalling design motifs in Chippendale furniture. It possesses a monumental entrance arch on Madison Avenue that is flanked by more arches that originally opened to Italian Renaissance-inspired arcades beneath the tower, and covered pedestrian space between east 55th and 56th Streets. The arcades have since been filled in.

While it was not the first building in the late 20th century to use classical ornament in such a manner, according to Landmark’s Matt Postal, it was “Postmodernism’s first skyscraper.”

The building immediately captured the public’s imagination, earning both praise and derision, and Johnson appeared on the cover of Time Magazine holding a model of the Headquarters in 1979.

AT&T commissioned the 37-story building to serve as its corporate headquarters. In 1984 AT&T divested many of its divisions following an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department, and in 1992 it relocated and leased the property to the Sony Corporation. Sony acquired the building in 2002, and sold it to developers the Chetrit Group. Chetrit intended to convert the building to residential use, but the plan never came to fruition, and the property was sold to Saudi-based investment firm the Olayan Group in 2016. The tower is currently unoccupied.

At the meeting where Landmarks added the item to its calendar, on November 28, 2017, some commissioners urged the agency’s Research Department to investigate the building’s multi-story lobby as a possible interior landmark. Olayan began demolition of the lobby in early 2018.  The open arcades at the building’s base have long been filled in.

Former President of the City’s Economic Development Corporation Seth Pinsky, Executive Vice President at RXR Realty, the developer and minority co-owner, spoke for the ownership. Pinsky said that Olayan and RXR had successful histories of restoring historic building while converting them to modern-use., and supported designation for the Headquarters significance in the City’s architectural heritage. He stated that the building would require “smart and sensitive modifications” to ensure that the building could operate as a “Class A commercial destination” into the foreseeable future. He said the owners also intended to remove an annex at the rear of the building and replace it with publicly accessible green space, an amenity sorely lacking in east Midtown.

Architect and former Landmarks Chair Sherida Paulsen, serving as a historical advisor for the owners said the annex and public space and the base were the building’s “Achilles heel” and the result of an awkward compromise between the City, AT&T, and the architect, and have never been successful, and successful re-use will require addressing those “missteps.” Paulsen said the Headquarters’ impact on the skyline was of upmost importance to AT&T and urged swift designation of the “icon of Postmodernism.” Fried Frank attorney Carol Rosenthal, counsel to the owners, testified that City Planning had been receptive to the idea of demolishing the annex to make way for a green space, and improvements to the space would still require public review, through the City Planning Commission approval process.

Michael Parley, a zoning consultant at Development Consulting Services, discussed the Building’s history with City Planning, saying in its planning stages, the City sought to reduce the development’s impact of the lack of retail a ground level along Madison Avenue, and required an accessory building that included pedestrian and public uses, and the retail arcade, to activate the streetscape. City Planning issued two special permits and a zoning text amendment to allow the tower’s construction.  The ultimate result of these public spaces, said Parley, was “lamentable.” City Planning’s intent of mitigating the perceived “anti-pedestrian” qualities of Johnson’s plan would be “100 percent remedied” by the plan to create a public green space.

A representative of Council Member Keith Powers spoke in support of designation, asking Landmarks protect the tower’s exterior, while allowing the owners to create “improved and much-needed public space” where the annex now stands. A representative of Community Board 5 recommended that Landmarks designate the building’s exterior, including the annex, as well as the interior, so that redevelopment would be monitored and undergo a public-review process.

Former New York Times and New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger testified that the Headquarters was “clearly Postmodernism’s major monument.” Goldberger discussed the era in which the building was designed as one in which there was a sense that modernism had lost its momentum, but Postmodernism had yield a substantial architectural work. Johnson and Burgee took these ideas into unprecedented scale of major skyscraper, creating something new form elements of the past. When writing about the building at the time, Goldberger said it was the most provocative and daring skyscraper to be constructed in New York since the 1930s. He agreed that the arcades and the annex were unsuccessful aspects of the buildings, and opined that the demolition of the annex would not impact “the true landmark,” the granite-clad tower.

Several representatives of preservationist organization, including the Municipal Art Society, supported the inclusion of the annex in a desired designation and asked Landmarks to work to protect the arcade at the base. Docomomo Executive Director Liz Waytkus said the buildings base, and tits alterations undertaken in 1993 by Gwathmey Siegel in consultation with Philip Johnson merited preservation, as “critical elements of the total design,” and all elements of the original exterior should be designated. Waytkus decried the demolition of the lobby, and criticized Landmarks for not moving to protect it. The Society for the Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough said the Headquarters’ arcades and lobby were an achievement on par with its monumental pediment. Barbara Zay, speaking for the Historic Districts Council, testified that the building’s base is “clearly a feature still beloved by New Yorkers,” and noted the significance of the building as major construction project commenced in 1977, when the City was at the nadir of a financial crisis.

Hillary Lewis, a Johnson scholar and curator at the Glass House, Johnson’s self-designed residence and now house museum, said the Headquarters was one of the signature works of the 1980s, and compelled viewers “to consider centuries of architecture,” in often “incongruous juxtapositions.” A member of the Castellucci family, operator of Kenneth Castelucci and Associates, a stonemasonry and quarrying company in Rhode Island, offered support for designation, and discussed the company’s experience in working with Johnson to create one of the “last great all-granite buildings of the 20th century.” He said the working to clad the building in Stony Creek granite “remains the highlight of my family’s accomplishments.”

Michael Slattery of the Real Estate Board of New York said the owners would be “exceptional stewards” of the property, and fully endorsed the redevelopment plans. Architect Vishaan Chakrabarti stated that the City’s business districts were dispersing, and Olayan’s project would serve the responsible revitalization of East Midtown. Chakrabarti said the vacant building would need modifications to alter it from an “insular corporate fortress” designed for a single occupant, into marketable and viable office building for multiple tenants. Representatives of the Association for a Better New York and the New York Building Congress similarly testified at the hearing to express their support for the planned redevelopment.

Acting chair Fred Bland said the Commission had received an additional 12 letters in support of designation, including communications from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and author and historian Virginia McAlester. Bland closed the hearing without establishing a date for a vote on designation.


(CIT)LPC: 550 Madison Avenue (Former AT&T Corporate Headquarters), 550 Madison Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2600) (June 19, 2018).

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


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