New 12-story Building will Retain Facade of Previously Demolished Tenement

Architect rendering of the new 807 Park Avenue. Image credit: PBDW ARchitects

Architect rendering of the new 807 Park Avenue. Image credit: PBDW ARchitects

Commission asked applicants to integrate fragment of building that was otherwise demolished for 1980s enlargement. On June 9, 2015, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to approve an application to construct a new building at 807 Park Avenue in the Upper East Side Historic District. It was the commission’s fourth meeting on the matter. The property was originally developed in 1899 as five story Romanesque Revival tenement. The site is owned by Aion Partners, who purchased the property in 2004.

In the period between of Landmarks survey of the district in 1979, and the district’s designation in 1981, the building was converted from a five story tenement to a 12 story tower. All of the tenement’s original fabric was demolished, except for its front facade, which still fronts the building’s first five stories. The building is listed in the designation report (as 813 Park Avenue), as a five-story tenement, and there is no record of building permits or application to Landmarks for the construction of the 12-story structure.

The initial proposal, presented on December 3, 2014 by architects from Platt Bayard Dovell White called for the demolition of the building standing on the site, and its replacement with a contemporary twelve-story building, with taller ceiling heights and more floor area.

The initial proposal was opposed by preservationist organizations and neighborhood residents. The Historic Districts Council advised the applicants to consider building a rooftop addition if they desired a larger structure, not to “demolish one of the oldest contributing buildings in a historic district. Friends of the Upper East Side also argued that the threshold issue of demolition should nullify the project, saying the “current building has significant architectural features that contribute to the historic district.” The commission also received missives from Congress Member Carolyn Maloney, State Senator Liz Krueger, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Council Member Daniel Garodnick opposing the demolition.

Commissioners generally praised the proposed design, but asked the applicants to explore alternate proposals that would integrate the facade of the demolished tenement.

When the architects returned, they instead sought to demonstrate that a new contemporary building was more appropriate for the site than the compromised hybrid currently existing. Architect Charles Platt, of the firm Platt Bayard Dovell White, called the existing structure a “non-conforming building of strange birth,” and asserted that it was not the same as the building listed in the designation report. Consultant Bill Higgins said the existing structure was “not a historic building,” and called the proposal before Landmarks “an honest expression of its own time.”

Commissioner John Gustaffson determined that it was “not our charge” to revisit the findings of the 1981 designation report, that the first five stories had been designated as contributing to the historic district, and that he could not consent to a wholesale demolition of the tenement facade. Commissioner Fred Bland was convinced that the existing structure was not a historic building, but a 1980s building with a fragment of historic fabric, and he said he was persuaded that the fragment did not require retention. Commissioner Roberta Washington opined that she would like to see the tenement somehow memorialized in any new structure. Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan expressed uncertainty as to whether protecting the fragment of the destroyed tenement served Landmarks’ preservation mandate, and argued that the building described in the designation report is not the one that stands on the site. Nonetheless, Srinivasan asked the applicants to present a proposal incorporating the 1899 fabric.

When the applicants appeared before Landmarks in March of 2015, Platt reiterated his conviction that it was “misleading” and deceitful” to retain the thin sliver of original facade. He argued that it would better serve the memory of the lost tenement to create a wholly new design that acknowledged the past, rather than to “impose” a historic fragment onto a new apartment building. He said to be forced to reconcile the floors of a new building with the historic facade presented significant difficulties. A structural engineer retained by the applicants stated that the back of the tenement façade was not solid masonry, but a fragile composite, and would have to be braced to rebuild the floors behinds, which he said would be “an extremely difficult project.”

Platt presented a revised proposal for a contemporary building with compositional lines, coursing and cornices aligning with or inspired by those of the tenement. They also presented diagrams intended to illustrate what a potential new building with a retained historic facade would look like, which they said would not express a satisfactory architectural design.

Commissioner Michael Goldblum countered the assertion that retention of the fabric was an invalid act of preservation, saying retention is only dishonest if seeks to fools the viewer, and further said the retention would not hinder the site’s adaptive reuse. Commissioner Christopher Moore found the historic faced worthy of preservation. Given the lack of consensus, Chair Srinivasan told the applicants, “If you really want something to happen over here, you will have to change your approach.”

At the June meeting, architect Scott Duenow, presented a proposal that would integrate the tenement facade, and the design of the new fabric would take its cues from the design of the tenement façade. The building would have a traditional tower arrangement of base, shaft and capitol, and the new windows would match the depth and size of those of the tenement’s fifth floor. It would have contemporary corner windows, stucco at the rear, and French balconies at the twelfth floor. New limestone infill would be installed at the ground floor, with a metal cornice separating the first floor from the upper stories. The new structure would align with the height an adjoining building, and would be topped by another metal cornice.

Duenow expressed optimism that the façade could be retained without the need to disassemble and reinstall it, but would not know for certain until they began work.

Chair Srinivasan stated that the commission had received a letter from Friends of the Upper East Side that commended the applicants for integrating the historic facade into the new building, but asking that the design be further refined.

Chair Srinivasan found the proposal respectful, and to draw from the design of the tenement in a contemporary manner. Commissioner Bland found it a skillfully handled “pluralistic approach,” and the end result “worth everybody’s while.” Commissioner Goldblum said the applicants successfully dealt with the “imperfect historic condition” in an architecturally honest manner. Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron was pleased to see the fragment preserved, and praised the overall design, but asked the applicants to rethink the metal cornices.

Commissioners unanimously voted to award the project a certificate of appropriateness, after agreeing that the applicants would work with Landmarks staff in looking at the cornices again.

LPC: 807 Park Avenue, Manhattan (15-7491) (June 9, 2015) (Architect: Platt Bayard Dovell White Architects).

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

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