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The Redevelopment of 980 Madison Avenue

A Very Proper Preservation Battle

"If you like modernism, don't go to the Upper East Side"

- Jeff Koons

Study models for tower over 980 Madison Avenue

Study models for planned tower above 980 Madison Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

Aby Rosen is a real estate developer and owner of the Seagram Building and Lever House, two of the city's most famous and influential post-war office buildings.

Aby Rosen looking at model of new tower

Aby Rosen contemplating model of tower planned atop 980 Madison Avenue

Lord Norman Foster is one of the world's leading architects (see The City Review article on his recently completed Hearst Building project) and has recently designed a mixed-use tower for Mr. Rosen at 610 Lexington Avenue (see The City Review article). His design of a major office tower at Ground Zero for Silverstein Properties was also recently unveiled (see The City Review article).

Lord Norman Foster pointed to rendering of new tower

Lord Norman Foster pointed to rendering of proposed new tower atop 980 Madison Avenue

Mr. Rosen has asked Lord Foster to design a "rooftop addition" for 980 Madison Avenue, the 5-story, limestone-clad Carlyle Galleries Building at 980 Madison Avenue across Madison Avenue from the Carlyle Hotel, the most prominent landmark on the Upper East Side west of Third Avenue since it was erected in 1930.

Aby Rosen making presentation

Aby Rosen making presentation to Landmarks Preservation Commission. Commissioners Jan Hird Pokorny and Elizabeth Ryan are at the right

The Carlyle Galleries building was originally erected as a four-story building to house the Parke-Bernet auction house in 1950 by Robert Dowling as a "light-protector" for the Carlyle Hotel, which Mr. Dowling then owned. In 1987, 980 Madison was altered with the addition of many windows along its Madison Avenue frontage between 76th and 77th Streets and a fifth floor.

The building lies within the Upper East Side Historic District and the Madison Avenue Preservation Special District, which limits the height of new buildings to 210 feet.

Mr. Rosen bought 980 Madison Avenue last year for about $120 million with the intention of developing its unused "air rights" and Lord Foster has designed a slender tower with 22 floors with a plan of two interlocked ellipses for the north end of the low-rise building. The plan also entails removing the floor that was added in 1987 and restoring the base to something close to the original. Mr. Rosen plans for a 10,000-square-foot public sculpture garden for much of the rooftop of the low-rise base and to devote about 24,000 square feet on two floors in the base structure for art exhibition space.

The proposed tower be clad in glass and according to Lord Foster will be very "green," that is, environmentally friendly. As the tower of the Carlyle Hotel is at the south end of the blockfront across from 980 Madison Avenue, the proposed tower will only block vistas to the northwest from the Carlyle Hotel. It will, however, block a lot of southern vistas from the Mark Hotel, across 77th Street, which was recently acquired by Alexico Management with the intention of converting it to residential condominiums. Mr. Rosen plans only 18 condominiums for the proposed 22-story "rooftop-addition" that will rise 355 feet above Madison Avenue.

The application for a certificate of appropriateness from the Landmarks Preservation Commission presents a very proper preservation battle in which a highly prominent and respected real estate investor and developer and a very famous architect want to develop an "iconic" modern building in the midst of the city's richest historic district that harbors some of the city's most fervent preservationists.

The battle goes to the heart of historic districts, almost none of which in the city are 100 percent "pure," which is to say that historic district designations in the city have encompassed many "non-contributing" buildings that few people seriously want to preserve but which many preservationists want to control and try to make their redevelopment, or alteration, compatible with their neighbors.

Historic districts are the battlement of contextual architecture, architecture that is homogenous and conservative. A building included in an historic district is subject to the same strict regulations imposed by the commission as an individual landmark and these regulations usually entail considerable added expense to the owner in terms of materials, research, design fees, and the costs of submitting plans for review and approval by the commission. Such costs, on the other hand, is balanced to a degree by the fact that landmark designation usually results in higher property values.

Mr. Rosen's team focused primarily on the preservation aspects of his proposal rather than on the aesthetics of the addition, a tactic not without some justification but one that might hurt its chances.

Margery Perlmutter, Richard Olcott and Robert Tierney

Commissioners Margery Perlmutter, Richard Olcott, and Commission Chairman Robert B. Tierney

The existing building would have its added floor removed as well as many windows along Madison Avenue and thus returned to its original state when it was built to house the Parke-Bernet auction house, then the most prestigious in the country. Parke-Bernet would many years later be taken over by Sotheby's, which then moved its operations, which had made Madison Avenue in the mid-70s the center of the city's art world, to York Avenue and 72nd Street, infuriating many art collectors forced to make much longer and less attractive trips, but sparking a lot of new real estate development in that area.

Commissioners Christopher Moore and Pablo Vengoechea

Landmarks commissioners Christopher Moore and vice-chair Pablo Vengoechea

Mr. Rosen's team tried to convince the commission that a restored building at 980 Madison with a lower floor and far fewer windows was a worthy preservation cause, an argument that sounds good on paper for preservationists but which in fact denies that fact that the proportions of the existing building and its fenestration pattern are far better and less sterile. In an event, lost in the conversations was the fact that the existing building at 980 Madison Avenue is not an architecture masterpiece although it has served a good urbanistic cause.

Landmarks commissioners Joan Gerner and Stephen Byrns

Not only has it served well as a "light-protector" for the Carlyle Hotel in a city where property rights do not include views, but also it has carried on the peaks and valleys of Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, which has helped make Saturday strolls there one of the city's most enjoyable because of the relative abundance of "light and air," the elusive intangible, but measurable, quality that Manhattan has historically undervalued by its emphasis on density and views.

What makes Manhattan special, something different from suburbia, is its density, which contributes to its liveliness, its energy and makes somewhat more possible its affordability, is its "high-rise" nature. What would New York be without its Lower Manhattan and Midtown and Central Park West skylines.

The Carlyle Hotel's high visibility over the decades has resulted in large part from the fact that it has no tall neighbors, one of the reasons that the Empire State Building, until recently, has stood in splendid isolation on the skyline. The Carlyle Hotel is a significant Art Deco-style skyscraper whose architectural importance has managed not to be diminished too much by the atrocious alterations of many of its windows.

Many of the applications that come before the Landmarks Preservation Commission are for "rooftop additions," mostly on low- and mid-rise buildings, and the commission has generally required that applicants erect "mock-ups" for the commission to view from the street to see if the additions are visually offensive/inappropriate and the commission has generally insisted that such additions not be visible from the street, a very limited and, shall we say, short-sighted perspective as the addtions are often quite visible to a lot of people from inside or atop other buildings or even from greater distances at street-level.

Lord Norman Foster and Aby Rosen prior to start of hearing

Lord Norman Foster and Aby Rosen prior to start of landmarks hearing

Recently, the commission has begun to show some appreciation for modern design as opposed to its rather rigid anti-modernist stance of the past. Indeed, it recently approved a plan by Mr. Rosen to have Lord Foster design a slender mixed-use tower immediately to the east of the Seagram Building. The approved plan is considerably tower than the Seagram Building and replaces a pleasant Renaissance-style mid-rise building at 610 Lexington Avenue. The new tower, the commission noted, will not be visible from directly across Park Avenue from the Seagram Building at streetlevel.

William Kahn

William Kahn testifying before the commission

At the commission's hearing on the 980 Madison Avenue plan, Lord Foster argued that the Upper East Side has a history of important "radicalism," citing buildings such as The Whitney Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, arguing that "the tradition of change is the essence of the Upper East Side," a statement that is a bit of a stretch. William Kahn, a resident of the Carlyle House at 50 East 77th Street, countered later in the hearing that "this is not evolution, this is revolution," arguing that the plan is an "invasion."

Lord Foster showing floor plan

Lord Norman Foster showing commission plan of typical floor in proposed tower

Mr. Rosen and Mr. Foster could hardly be considered "barbarians - they're usually quite well dressed, if not dapper.

For preservationists, furthermore, to try to argue sometimes that nearby tall buildings should not be considered part of a planned development's "context," a position taken by the fervent Upper East Side preservations in the case of a modest apartment building planned for 21 East 91st Street (see The City Review article), is preposterous and an insult to intelligence. So the preservationists' notion that all views of the Carlyle Hotel should be sacrosanct is sheer nonsense. The notion of "scenic easements" is intriguing but literally where do you draw the line and is justice is to be equal then everyone should pay and the Carlyle Hotel should also pay for obstructing some vistas from some vantage points, etc., ad nauseum.

A real sticking point, and probably the crux of this matter, is the proposed 355-foot-high tower's flaunting and bursting through the 210-foot-high maximum height restriction of the Madison Avenue Special Preservation District, a completely misguided part of that legislation.

Sketch of "as-or-right" development at site

Sketch of "as-of-right" development on site

Mr. Rosen's team did, dismissively, show the commission what an "as-of-right" development on the site preserving the existing structure would look like, as shown in the above diagram. Such a plan, surprisingly, is not altogether unattractive, but, of course, it would not be able to offer many very spectacular, and therefore very costly, vistas for potential condominium buyers.

It should be noticed that the placement of the proposed tower at the north end of the site obviously was done to preserve as much as possible of the views to the west from the Carlyle Hotel, an incredibly neighborly gesture, but one that is of little solace to the prospective condominium owners of apartments that are understood to be planned in the Mark Hotel, directly across 77th Street from the project.

Aby Rosen and Lord Norman Foster listening to testimony

Aby Rosen and Lord Norman Foster listening to testimony at hearing

The Community Board that represents the neighborhood rejected the proposal in an advisory by a margin of 20 to 13.

Teri Slater of Defenders of the Upper Historic Districts

Teri Slater, co-chair of Defenders of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, giving testimony at landmarks hearing, as Aby Rosen turns his head

Teri Slater, co-chair of Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side with Elizabeth Ashley, read a long statement in opposition to the project at the commission's hearing, which was held in the Surrogate Court Building.

"Aby Rosen & RFR Holdings LLC the applicant for this project, by virtue of hiring Foster and Partners to design their building, seemingly intend to successfully attempt to distract the Commissioners from their legally appointed role. With the request today, the applicant desires to alter the debate's focus from one of appropriate additions to the historic district, to one of a discussion of the merits of this single design by an internationally known architect. The approach is clever, the design is not without merit. However, the Landmarks Preseration Commissioners ought to be able to see through the scheme. Indeed, the LPC should and must feel completed to dissect the project into its component parts. Having done so, their only rational option then, would be to reject the proposal. This application represents the LPC with a highly significant turning point in its formulation of policy: by pattern and precedent. The Commission must take careful, measured consideration of the real changes which are before it today. Those changes are not construction related. They are changes to the legal procedure and the precedents by which the LPC governs and functions. Indeed, the changes requested today dwarf then this 'environmentlaly green,' oversized, ovoid, glazed conceit of a project....Clearly, the former Sotheby's Building helps to define the character of Madison Avenue in the mid-70s blocks. It also serves as an extremely elegant punctuation mark of scale, design detail and building finish at the very center of this premier district in the city. The building is also utterly complete as designed; it was never thought of, or designed to serve, as the base for a tower. Of course, 980 Madison also responds to and makes visible another highly significant landmark of the Upper East Side Historic District, the Carlyle Hotel. Indeed, 980 Madison's low scale was determined by its neighbor across the avenue, and the proposal heard today would do great violence to the Carlyle's visibility and undeniable enhancement of the historic district as seen not only from both Madison and Fifth Avenues,...but also from Central Park and Central Park West.....Offsetting the design to the north, which merely mimics the Carlyle's offset to the south, can hardly diminish the view blocking bulk of the project's 355 foot stature. Views to the Carylyle hotel from Fifth Avenue, Central Park and Central Park west will be diminished forever. To put this in perspective, the LPC normally views visibility issues where a few feet of blocked views are called into question. Here, the rooftop addition will be visible for miles, and the views to be blocked are innumerable. Surely that must cause pause for quiet reflection, and then rejection. Especially, whether repairs contemplated are merely to a few windows, a decorative cornice and rooftop garden. For, if the LPC were to allow this RFR Holdings LLC effort to succeed - effectively to pass this elephant through the eye of a needle - then the whole rationale of defining scale as an integral ingredient of character in an Historic District is 'up for grabs.' The 74-711 Rule would become enshrined as the method by which the flout the normal procedures and regulations of the LPC."

Adam Lindeman, a resident at 77 East 77th Street, told the commission that it would be "a tragedy to turn down" the project" and Richard Meier, the architect, submitted a statement said it would have "a positive effect on the Upper East Side."

Ross Moscovitz giving testimony

Ross Moskovitz giving testimony

Ross Moskovitz, an attorney, said that Carlyle House and 960 Fifth Avenue are opposed to the project. "Call this an addition?" he asked rhetorically.

Jeff Koons giving testimony

Jeff Koons giving testimony

Artist Jeff Koons, an area resident, supported the design as "very special" and complained of neighborhood "segregation" based on architectural style.

"If you like modernism, don't live on the Upper East Side," Mr. Koons said.

Peter Brandt giving testimony

Peter Brandt giving testimony

Peter Brandt, a newsprint magnate, testified in favor of the project, stating that he "embraced" it. Mort Ehrit described it as "a feather in a cap."

Model of prosed new tower and Hotel Carlyle

Model of proposed new tower, showing rooftop sculpture garden, left, and Hotel Carlyle, right

Does the city's need to have new, modern architecture carry more merit than strict preservationism?

Is this design by Lord Norman Foster a masterpiece?

Can this design be tweaked sufficiently to pass muster with preservationists?

A few years ago, the city was a backwater of contemporary architecture and virtually anything new should have been heartily embraced as much of the rest of the world was outshining New York City with spectacular new developments. That situation has changed recently with three new and interesting buildings now advancing designed by Frank O. Gehry, a beautiful small project at 40 Bond Street by Herzog & de Meuron. The general level of most new projects has improved dramatically even when they are relatively conventional: sleek new glass apartment towers and pleasant Post-Modern mid-rise apartment buildings are sprouting up all over Manhattan and some new and rather garish and far-from-perfect buildings, albeit with a lot of flair, are rising in the outer boroughs. Overall, there is much to be encouraged about, but not enough to be complacent.

This city, and others, always needs great new architecture. Lord Norman Foster's projects are not always beautiful, or apparently great, but they invariably are very interesting and tend to push the envelope of technique from the viewpoint of engineering and environmental concerns. His projects are usually "surprising," and that is something rare and important. It is very tempting, therefore, to say "let him at it! and damn the torpedoes!" He is not, of course, a god and it is foolhardy to throw caution to the winds, especially since we want the Landmarks Preservation Commission to be cautious and not take big risks with our spatial environment. At the same time, while most people would love to hobnob with the owner of the Seagram Building and the Lever House, Aby Rosen is not, of course, a god and it would be silly to think that he, or Donald Trump, or Jerry Speyer, are incapable of anything not utterly sensational and wonderful. In the real world, of course, we cannot expect the Landmarks commissioners to wear blinders. We want them wide-eyed and able to recognize greatness from anyone.

The Foster design is very good and interesting and would be a fine non-rectilinear addition to the city and the Upper East Side, although the comment of one opponent of the project at a community board meeting that it is is better suited to Third Avenue than Madison Avenue is not without merit.

It is interesting that the proposal occurs at the same time as the splendid isolation of the Empire State Building is being challenged by several nearby residential towers of 40 to 60 stories or so and at the same time that the New York Historical Society is reviving plans to build an addition to its low-rise structure on Central Park West (see The City Review article). The latter project is particularly surprising because its tower is offset to the south of the existing building and is a modern glass tower as opposed to the brilliant PostModern addition planned a generation ago for the society by Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer (see The City Review article).

The Rosen/Foster proposal is certainly not a slamdunk. The tower would be a fine addition to New York even if it is not contextual and while those of us who were spellbound by John Marion's wonderful auctioneering at Parke-Bernet have great nostalgic fondness for the existing building, it is not an especially important building architecturally. One can have confidence that Mr. Rosen would produce a tasteful kunsthalle and sculpture garden, but they are not facilities that are desperately needed on the Upper East Side, though welcome.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the proposal is almost too serious. Perhaps Mr. Rosen might ask Mr. Koons for a small, stainless steel Puppy (see a photograph of a giant green puppy by Mr. Koons that was exhibited at Rockefeller Center that is illustrated in The City Review article on Rockefeller Center) to put atop the tower.

The as-of-right development of the building's unused air-rights would not be unattractive, but its lack of major views would make it economically unattractive given the high purchase price of the building.

Waffling aside, the plan, while not sensational, would be exciting and would become a modern landmark on the Upper East Side, which has few of them.

The proposal was not accepted as "appropriate" by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. (1/1/08)

Revised design

Revised design published May 14, 2008

A revised design by Norman Foster for a planned addition to 980 Madison Avenue was published in a May 14, 2008 article by Nicolai Ouroussoff in The New York Times.

A previous design was not accepted by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in January, 2007. That design would have added a reflective-glass, curbed tower at the north end of the roof of the low-rise, limestone-clad building that occupies the avenue blockfront on the west side between 76th and 77th Streets across from the Carlyle Hotel and directly south of the former Mark Hotel that is being renovated and partially converted to condominium apartments.

The new design is substantially shorter than the prior design's tower and it fully covers the roof of the existing building. The prior design would have created a large sculpture garden on most of the low-rise building's roof.

The new design is clad in bronze-colored glass and has a slight indentation just above the existing structure that makes it appear, to a certain extent, to be floating, a design effect used to great affect at the former C.I.T. Building at 650 Madison Avenue.

Mr. Ouroussoff, who is the architecture critic of The New York Times, wrote that "You have to pity any architect who appears before the landmarks committee of the Upper East Side's community board. Packed with amateur preservationists, it is notoriously adverse to anything new." "The group," he added, "seems as open to the notion that cities can change as some biblical fundamentalists are to evolution."

Describing the new design, he noted that "Clad in elegant bronze bands, its low blocky form would rest directly on the existing structure, echoing its exact proportions." "The new design," he continued, "is more polite and less original, hewing to the reactionary view that most contemporary architecture is best when it is invisible. Little wonder that this neighborhood has not gained a significant new work of architecture in more than a quarter-century."

According to Mr. Ouroussoff, "The bands, modeled on an earlier Foster design for an apartment complex in an Alpine resort, are conceived as delicate movable screens, reflecting the good taste of the inhabitants while protecting them from the unwanted gaze of outsiders." The new design, he continued is "a calculated response to the bottom-line politics of building on the Upper East Side. The building's low profile and bronzed exterior, while no more contextual than a glass tower, seem well mannered if complacent."

Aby Rosen is the developer of the project and is the owner of such major landmarks as the Seagram Building and Lever House, both on Park Avenue.

The previous design proposed a 22-story addition with only 18 condominium apartments atop the former Parke-Bernet Gallery Building that was erected in 1950 and altered substantially about two decades ago. Parke-Bernet was the auction house that was subsequently acquired by Sotheby's.

Foster's former design for the apartment tower would have been a joined bundle of two glass-clad towers of unequal height and with curved facades occupying only 23 percent of the roof. It would have blocked numerous view to the south from the Mark Hotel but would have preserved a lot of "light and air" for the Carlyle Hotel and Madison Avenue.

Mr. Foster had argued previously that a vertical addition was more appropriate than "heavy layering" of a horizontal addition.

The plan has to be resubmitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission because the property falls within an historic district.

On May 12, 2008, the Department of Buildings assigned an alteration application about the building by Ambrosino Depinto & Schmieder to a plan examiner and the application described was for a 14-story "business" building with no dwelling units.


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