The Upper East Side Book logo

Madison Avenue logo


980 Madison Avenue

between 76th and 77th Streets

Former Parke-Bernet Building at 980 Madison Avenue

980 Madison Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

This low-rise, block-long, gray-granite building at 980 Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th Streets was erected in 1949 to house the Parke-Bernet Galleries.

AA December 10, 2006 "Streetscapes" article in The New York Times by Christopher Gray provided the following commentary about this  building:                                

"Built low by Robert W. Dowling to protect the light to the 40-story Carlyle Hotel, directly across the avenue, what was once the epicenter of the New York art world, is something that most people just pass right by today.

"The story of this peculiar building on Madison at 76th Street - 200 feet long but only six stories high - starts with the Carlyle, whose romantic tower crashed through the Madison Avenue skyline in 1931 like a movie cowboy thrown through a stage-glass saloon window.

"Even before the hotel was complete, the Depression had descended on the Upper East Side, indirectly preserving the remaining low-rise buildings like the odd little houses just opposite that would, 17 years later, be razed to make way for the gallery.  By then, Mr. Dowling owned the Carlyle and planned a complementary structure for the site across Madison. He did not envision another Jazz Age tower, but rather a button-down modernist commercial building - long, lean, low and devoted to the sale of art.

"He arranged with Parke-Bernet Galleries, barely a decade old but already the dominant art auction house in New York, to be sole tenant of the custom-designed building.

"His architects, A. Stewart Walker and Alfred Easton Poor, arranged retail stores, storage vaults, conservation rooms, photography studios, a big auction sales room and six large exhibition galleries - two of them double-height - behind an impassively spare facade of limestone blocks nearly six feet on a side.

Wheeler Williams sculpture above entrance

"The top two of the six floors were set back, making the building look even shorter from the surrounding sidewalks, and the design allowed the west light to reach the Carlyle.

"The windowless third floor, the site of the galleries, gave the building a certain antiquity, accentuated by the 14-foot-long aluminum sculpture over the doorway by Wheeler Williams: a woman holding a torch floats over a reclining young man. The imagery, according to The New York Times in 1949, is meant to symbolize 'Venus awakening Manhattan to the importance of art from overseas.'

"Something about Venus also awakened the City of New York: her chest protrudes 18 inches into what is considered public space. That infraction was permitted only with a rental of $25 a year. (That sum has now grown to $3,251 a year, according to Ted Timbers, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation.)

"In 1950, The Journal of the American Institute of Architects reported the remarks of William Adams Delano at the building’s opening the year before. Mr. Delano, a designer of town houses and private clubs, said that on his way uptown, his taxi driver had called Parke-Bernet’s new gallery 'the best damn building in New York.'

"Lewis Mumford admired Walker & Poor’s deft, apparently effortless handling of the blocky form. 'The slightest error in taste, the faintest blemish in workmanship, would seem like a rattle of static in the midst of a Mozart quartet,' Mumford wrote in The New Yorker in 1950."

Parke-Bernet was the Grand Central Terminal of the art world, where dealers, collectors, curators, appraisers and just plain voyeurs took in the great auction-dramas of the mid-20th century.

Sotheby’s acquired Parke-Bernet in 1964, and the new Sotheby Parke-Bernet remained in the Madison Avenue building, even as the art world opened other beachheads in SoHo and elsewhere.

But the center did not hold much past 1980, whSen Sotheby’s - by that time the Parke-Bernet had dropped out of common usage - started moving into its present building at York Avenue and 72nd Street.

The big galleries of the 1949 building were then cut up for individual tenants, and windows were cut into the blank facades, sharply undercutting the dignity of the structure. By that time it had been included in the Upper East Side Historic District, and the alterations were approved as appropriate by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The setback fifth floor was fully built out in 1957.

Earlier this year, Aby Rosen announced plans to restore the Parke-Bernet building to its 1949 appearance, as long as he could add atop it a pair of interlocking oval-shaped apartment towers of glass, designed by Norman Foster. The taller would rise to 30 stories, several floors lower than the Carlyle. It would be an astonishing addition for Madison Avenue, although not much more so than the Carlyle or the Whitney Museum were in their day.

Much of the case before the Landmarks Commission will hinge on whether the restoration of the galleries building is enough of a public benefit to outweigh the negatives of the proposed tower. That depends in part on the critical esteem for Walker & Poor’s design, and to judge from the current record, it is not high.

The 1949 building is usually omitted from architectural guidebooks, although Norval White and Elliot Willensky included it in their A.I.A. Guide to New York City (Crown, 2000) but rather harshly called it “an insipid box unrelated to any cultural values.”

Parke-Bernet Galleries was an American auction house, active from 1937 to 1964, when Sotheby's purchased it. The company was founded by a group of employees of the American Art Association, including Otto Bernet, Hiram H. Parke, Leslie A. Hyam, Lewis Marion and Mary Vandergrift. By 1964, the company was the largest auction house in America, with 115 employees and total sales of $11 million ($91 million in 2019). That year, Sotheby's purchased a controlling interest of 75% in the gallery for $1.5 million ($12 million in 2019).

In January 1938, the first auction was held in a gallery at 742 Fifth Avenue. The next year, the company took over the American Art Association-Anderson Galleries, consisting of the American Art Association and the Anderson Auction Company. Parke-Bernet oversaw the sale of the estate of Georges Lurcy , a prominent art collector, whose estate included works by Raoul Dufy, Alfred Sisley and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The collection sold for over 2 million pounds in 1957, a record. Other customers of the company included Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Paul Mellon and Henry Ford II. Ford's purchase of La Serre by Renoir through Parke-Bernet was a world record. Parke-Bernet also oversaw the sale of the estate of Hagop Kevorkian, the Armenian archaeologist, antiquities dealer, and philanthropist whose foundation gave major contributions to support the study of the Near East and Middle East at the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and Columbia University.

Sotheby & Co. of London, largest of the world's art auction houses, gained a controlling interest July 15, 1964 in the Parke-Bernet Galleries, the nation's leading auction gallery.

The decision to give majority control to Sotheby's, which was under consideration for some time, was made at a Parke-Bernet stockholders' meeting. The Sotheby share of Parke-Bernet was said to be slightly more than 75 per cent, purchased for about $15 million.

According to an agreement reached yesterday, Sotheby's will retain the organization of Parke-Bernet, which has 115 employes, and will keep the name of the gallery at 980 Madison Avenue.

Eleven stockholders relinquished their shares to the British house. Only one American stockholder remains Richard Gimbel, a rare-book collector and curator of aeroauttical1 literature at the Yale University Library. Mr. Gimbel, a grandson of the founder of the New York department store that bears the tamily name, was active in the management of the store until 1935.  Louis J. Marion, president of Parke-Bernet, has been with the gallery and its predecessor companies for about 40 years. He will retain his post. Miss Vandergrift, executive vice president, and also long associated with the gallery, will retain her office.

Sotheby's handed out handsome bonuses to the top personnel at Parke-Bernet.         Robert F. Metzdorf, vice president and Parke-Bernet's rare-book manuscript expert, resigned and the attitude of several outsiders to foreign domination of the galleries was far from congratulatory. One of Parke-Bernet's regular clients called the sale “a horrible defeat for us in America.”

Parke-Bernet's total sales for the season recently ended was around $11 million. Sotheby's last reportfor the 1962-63 seasonwas for more than $30 million. About $11 million of last year's take reportedly came from the sale of American collections.

Fierce competitive battles have been waged here by the rival houses for quality merchandise and collections. For years Sotheby's conducted an energetic campaign for potential sellers here, offering such inducements as a world market and low commission rates.

Sotheby's commissions are 10 per cent for furniture and other decorative arts and 15 per cent for books and manuscripts. Parke-Bernet's commissions were, nominally, higher, but became competitive with Sotheby's under the pressure.

Sotheby's dates from 1744, the enterprise of Samuel Baker of Russell Street in Covent Garden. The first year's receipts came to 826 ($2,312 by today's figures). This year's are estimated at more than $36 million

In 1767, George Leigh joined Baker in partnership and some years later, John Sotheby, a nephew of Baker, also entered the business. The firm was known as Baker, Lee and Sotheby until 1861. John Wilkinson and Edward Hodge were the owners under the business name of Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge. In 1924, the name was changed again, to its present title.

The American branch, which has its own president. Peregrine Pollen, a director of the London board, is known as Sotheby's of London, Inc. It has offices at 717 Fifth Avenue.

Parke-Bernet traces its history to 1885 through the American Art Association and the Anderson Galleries, which were imerged in 1929. Hiram H. Parke sand Otto Bernet, with the late Leslie A. Hyam, Mr. Marion, Vandergrift and other top personnel, left the concern and set up business on their own. Mr. Parke, who died in 1959, was first president of the new eompany; Mr. Bernet, the vice President. The company had several homes, the best known of which were at 30 East 57th Street, and the present building.

The Madison Avenue building is owned by Antiquities, Inc., a subsidiary of French & Co., an art-antiques concern. The City Investing Company, in turn, owns approximately 80 per cent of French & Co. Parke-Bernet, a tenant since 980 Madison Avenue was built in 1949, has a 30-year-lease and an option of renewal for 32 years at an undisclosed figure.

In a January 15, 2007 article in The New York Sun, David Lombino wrote that "The drama surrounding a developer's proposal to build a 22-story elliptical glass tower on top of the limestone Parke-Bernet Gallery building on Madison Avenue between East 76th and East 77th streets will resume tomorrow in front of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

"In a telephone interview yesterday, the developer, Aby Rosen, said he is willing to modify the design of the proposed apartment building, including the use of more masonry and changing the color of the building to 'champagne' from silver. He said the changes would make the proposed modern addition harmonize better with its base, a five-story building built in 1949.

"'There will be changes,' Mr. Rosen said. 'We want to hear feedback from the commissioners and come back with something that is more in line with their views.'

"Tomorrow, the Landmarks Commission can vote to reject the proposal, propose modifications, or approve it outright. Mr. Rosen and his architect, Lord Norman Foster, will present the original designs and answer questions from the Landmarks commissioners. Mr. Rosen said he prefers a postponement and the chance to work collaboratively with the commissioners. Preservation groups and some neighbors are seeking immediate, decisive rejection.

"Since renderings were first revealed in early October, the project has been the talk of the neighborhood. Proponents say the sleek modern design would enliven the neighborhood, while critics say it is out of character with the rest of the Upper East Side Historic District. More than 200 people crammed into a Landmarks public hearing last fall, and the commission has received more than 600 letters and e-mails concerning the project, some in favor, some against.

"In the interview, Mr. Rosen said the Landmarks Commission should allow developers to expand buildings in historic districts, enabling the city to blend the new with the old.

"'If we freeze all those and don't find a way to add vertically, we will be living in a medieval town in 50 or a hundred years,' Mr. Rosen said. 'We need to find a way to grow.'

"His project has received strong support from several prominent members of the neighborhood's cultural elite, including financier Ronald Perelman, art dealer Larry Gagosian, and artist Jeff Koons, who say the building would spark the neighborhood's fading reputation as a creative force. They back Mr. Rosen's argument that an 'iconic'modernist building and the addition of public art space breath fresh air into the artistic community. Last fall, the Whitney Museum announced it would seek to expand Downtown and abandon decade-old plans to add to its existing space on Madison Avenue.

"'The galleries are fleeing, the restaurants are not there. Every street has no life. By 7 o'clock it's dead there,' Mr. Rosen said. 'Now the Whitney is going Downtown, it is even more important to have this.'

"The proposed tower, across the street from the Carlyle Hotel between 76th and 77th Streets, would contain about 18 full-floor units and duplexes spread on a total of 22 floors. In addition, Mr. Rosen has proposed to restore the Parke-Bernet gallery to its original condition, and add 45,000 square feet of public gallery space and roof garden, spaces, he notes, that are comparable to the size of the Whitney Museum's gallery space....

"The Community Board that represents the neighborhood rejected the proposal in an advisory vote in October by a margin of 20 to 13. At a contentious board meeting, one area resident, Daniel Goldberg, called the tower 'a glass dagger plunged into the heart of the Upper East Side.'

"The executive director of the Historic Districts Council, Simeon Bankoff, said the commission's decision is crucial for the future of the city's more than 80 historic districts. 'This will do irreparable damage to the streetscape of Madison Avenue, all for the benefit of the developer and the 18 families who get to live there,' Mr. Bankoff said. 'They are attempt to bend the law to create a palace for plutocrats.'

"If Mr. Rosen's project is approved, he said a precedent would be set that would severely threaten the power of the commission in rejecting rooftop additions.

"'If this is allowed, it opens up the door to see every building as a platform for a tower thrusting out of it,' Mr. Bankoff said....

"Two years ago, Mr. Rosen, the president of RFR Holding LLC, bought the Parke-Bernet Gallery, the former home of Sotheby's, for about $120 million. Mr. Rosen has said the total cost of adding the tower would be about $180 million, and he doesn't expect to begin construction until 2008 or 2009. Mr. Rosen considers himself a preservationist, and has received accolades for his restoration of two landmarked Park Avenue office buildings, the Lever House and the Seagram Building. The high-pitched landmarks battle prompted writer and preservationist Tom Wolfe to pen a 3,496-word op-ed in the New York Times, 'The (Naked) City and the Undead,' slamming the Landmark's Commission and mocking Mr. Rosen and his plans. That essay prompted a cover story this week in the Village Voice, 'Has Tom Wolfe Blown it?' suggesting the author's op-ed was an attempt at self-promotion.

"Mr. Rosen called Mr. Wolfe's op-ed 'insulting' and the act of someone who was trying to revive a dying career.

"'This is a man who has lost a little of his luster,' Mr. Rosen said. 'White suits alone won't keep in you in the limelight.'

See lengthy Plots & Plans article by Carter B. Horsley on Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing on Sir Norman Foster's design for two towers to be erected on top of Parke-Bernet Building