Whitney wins a modified expansion plan

Plan calls for a 176-foot tower, an expanded entry along Madison and a two story rooftop addition to the existing building. On May 24, 2005, Landmarks approved a modified plan for the expansion of the Whitney Museum of American Art along Madison Avenue and East 74th Street within the Upper East Side Historic District.

The original expansion plans designed by Renzo Piano included a two-story addition to the Whitney’s existing home, the 1964 Marcel Breuer & Associates building, as well as an expanded entry along Madison Avenue and a new 176- foot tower set back 30 feet from Madison Avenue and 17 feet from East 74th Street. For the expanded entry, the plans called for the complete demolition of two brownstones at 941 and 943 Madison Avenue, located directly south of the existing museum entrance. For the expansion and the 17-story tower, a row of four brownstones, 933 – 939 Madison Avenue, would retain only the front facades, which the Whitney planned to restore, and the remainder would be gutted.

Of the two buildings proposed for complete demolition, Landmarks had named only one, the brownstone at 941 Madison Avenue, as a building, which was contributory to the Upper East Side Historic District when it designated the district in 1981. If approved, it would have been the third contributory building approved for demolition by Landmarks since its establishment in 1965.

At the first hearing on February 1, 2005, representatives of the Whitney stressed the space constraints of the current museum space, noting that within the 54,000-squarefoot Breuer-designed building only one percent of the Whitney’s 15,000 works could be placed on view, staff office space was overcrowded and the existing entrance was not ADA compliant. The expansion would add a film and performing arts center; classrooms and art studios; a center for works on paper; an expanded library; and a larger entrance

Calling the proposed expansion “a little tower,” Piano explained that the expanded entry and ground level expansion would act like a grand “piazza” for the museum. Residents along East 74th spoke in opposition, citing the 176- foot tower’s impact on their light and air, the visual impact of the tower and addition on the Breuer building, and the loss of the contributory brownstone.

At the third hearing on May 24, 2005, Whitney representatives, noting that they were pleased and proud of Piano’s modifications, presented a revised proposal that included a 16-foot reduction to the entrance along Madison Avenue from the 32 feet proposed. This change would allow retention of the contributory brownstone’s facade at 941 Madison Avenue and the brownstones to be “appropriately interwoven into the complex.” Only one brownstone, the non-contributory building at 943 Madison Avenue, would be demolished along Madison Avenue. The two-story addition to the Breuer building would be pushed back from 29 feet to 38 feet from the building edge in order to make it less visible from adjacent streets and reduce its impact on the Whitney’s original building. On East 74th Street, alterations were made to make the exterior egress stairs less visible.

After the public hearing closed, Commissioner Richard Olcott commented that the proposed composition of buildings honors the existing Breuer building and the Piano tower provides “a neutral background to the district’s brownstones.” Olcott stated that he found the original 32-foot proposal superior, but commended the Whitney on finding a solution. In Commissioner Stephen F. Byrns comments, which Chair Robert Tierney read into the record, Byrns stated that he could not support the application if the Whitney intended to demolish the contributory brownstone. Commissioner Robert Gratz called the expansion “an appropriate addition to the district” and noted that the Breuer building, now beloved, received initial opposition.

Landmarks approved the revised proposal by a vote of 10 to 0. Issuance of the permit is pending approval of final plans conforming with Landmarks’ decision.

LPC: Item No. 1, Case No. 05-3977, 933- 945 Madison Avenue (May 24, 2005).

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