980 Fifth Avenue

Northeast corner at 79th Street

980 Fifth Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

This 26-story apartment tower was erected as a cooperative in 1966 on the site of a chateau-like mansion that had been erected by Isaac Brokaw in 1887.

The controversial demolition of the Brokaw mansion, which was nicely complemented by the elaborate townhouse designed by C.P.H. Gilbert for Isaac Fletcher and occupied for many years by Augustus Van Horn Stuyvesant, directly across 79th Street that now houses the Ukrainian Institute of America, was a factor in the city’s creation of a landmarks preservation law as it happened about the same time as the demolition of the former Pennsylvania Station in midtown and aroused the public to the loss of important architectural monuments.

Because of the notoriety associated with the demolition of the Brokaw mansion, this tower has not been popular in many architectural circles.

It is, however, quite handsome and one of the better apartment towers to have been erected in the city after World War II.

Its dark, grayish brown brick facade would be somber if it were not enlivened by the slightly projecting limestone window bays, one on each of its facades. The composition gives the tower a strong sense of verticality, accentuating its already dramatic break with the traditional 15-story cornice line of the avenue’s apartment houses.

Entrance of 980 Fifth Avenue

Although 825 Fifth Avenue several blocks to the south was significantly higher than its neighbors, it was stylistically contextual whereas this tower’s modernity and minimalism was in sharp contrast to its neighbors. Furthermore, this tower achieved its height by providing a plaza that enabled it to use a zoning "bonus." The creation of a plaza on a broad cross-street such as 79th Street, to say nothing of being directly across from Central Park, is, and was, superfluous and unnecessary and disruptive of the area’s traditional street grid. Subsequently, the city would change its zoning and create an historic district to prevent such incongruities along much of the avenue’s frontage on the park.

The plaza and the building’s height, understandably shattered much of the elegant ambiance of the avenue just as Plaza 900 and 733 Park Avenue would soon do on Park Avenue. These projects significantly altered, for the worse, the consistent ambiance of both avenues and, indeed, the heart of the Upper East Side. This is the best of the lot as it is well-proportioned with very handsome, large picture windows with thin and attractive limestone reveals, a dramatic entrance and a large, nicely landscaped plaza with large planters with seating areas. Were this tower located east of Park Avenue, it would be praised as one of the nicest in the city.

Interestingly, another, very similar tower - 985 Fifth Avenue - quickly adjoined it just to the north on the avenue and at first glance both buildings read as one because the second building’s driveway adjoins 980’s plaza and both buildings are setback from the avenue. Paul Resnick and H. F. Green were the architects of 980 Fifth Avenue and Wechsler & Schimenti were the architects of 985 Fifth Avenue, which also rose on the site of a former Brokaw mansion.

In his fine small book, "Touring the Upper East Side, Walks in Five Historic Districts," (New York Landmarks Conservancy, 1995), Andrew S. Dolkart remarked that "these two apartment buildings are not only excruciatingly banal works of architecture, but they rudely break the plane of the Fifth Avenue street wall." "They replaced six townhouses, including four erected for clothier Isaac Brokaw and his children that were demolished, despite pleas for their preservation, in February, 1965....The ensuing New York Times editorial, entitled "Rape of the Brokaw Mansion," decried the ‘weekend stealth...[of] the despoilers’ who demolished these buildings and noted that if the city did not pass pending landmarks legislation there would be no landmarks left to save. This outcry influenced Mayor Robert Wagner’s, decision, two months later, to sign the law creating the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission," Dolkart wrote.

The Brokaw houses were impressive but not important examples of the turn-of-the-century urban mansion, and some might argue that these two towers should not be slighted since they were instrumental in getting the city to enact a landmarks law, even if it was decades late. Of course, ideally all the mansions along the avenue should probably have been saved and the elegant tall apartment buildings erected along Madison Avenue, but that should have been an earlier battle.

In his excellent book, "New York’s Fabulous Luxury Apartments With Original Floor Plans from The Dakota, River House, Olympic tower and Other Great Buildings," (Dover Publications, Inc., 1987), Andrew Alpern noted that 980 Fifth Avenue "offers large and expensive accommodations, the biggest being a 16-room duplex penthouse which originally cost $418,000." "Many of the original details used throughout the building - gold-plated bathroom fixtures, bidets, domed ceilings - were removed by some of the 43 owner-occupants. The large number of changes suggests a stern re-evaluation of what people of means want in their apartments," he continued.

The building, which now has 45 apartments, has spectacular views to the west and the south and has a garage and a driveway. It no longer is such a standout on the Upper East Side skyline and its plaza is very pleasant.

It is interesting to note that 985 Fifth Avenue is "in context" with 980 Fifth Avenue and visually the two abutting towers are often mistaken as one, albeit a rather complex mass. The two towers really do complement one another and mitigate somewhat the harsh criticisms against them individually.

For more information on 980 Fifth Avenue see its entry at CityRealty.com

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