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900 Park Avenue

Northwest corner at 79th Street

900 Park Avenue from the east

900 Park Avenue from across the avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

In the early 1970's, two towers broached the traditional cornice line of Park Avenue, 733 Park Avenue at 71st Street and this building.

Both were attacked by some architectural critics and planners for their insensitivity to the surrounding architectural and urbanistic ambiance, their lack of contextual concern.

View from the southeast

The passage of time and the proliferation of many other high-rise towers on the Upper East Side have somewhat softened the towers' original jarring effect.

Indeed, both now appear more sedate than egregious even though the original criticisms were valid that the celebrated design integrity of the relatively consistent building heights on the avenue should not be violated.

This tower is quite different from 733, which is dark and rather somber. 900 Park Avenue is not only set in its own plaza, which is larger than 733's, but also has its own driveway. Furthermore, the building eventually installed attractive public art in its plaza. Originally, the art was a Henry Moore sculpture, which prompted a rather snide 1974 editorial in The New York Times about "throwing good art after a bad building....Architecture is still the missing element. It's a cultural con game." Subsequently, the Moore sculpture was replaced by a large and charming bronze sculpture of a cat by Botero.

Architecturally, this building's limestone fašade has a vertical emphasis and its lobby is quite spacious and highly visible because of large windows. The building was completed in 1973 and was designed by Philip Birnbaum. Jay Spectre Inc. designed the building's lobby and a tenants' restaurant in a Modernist style.

In his 1990 book, "Park Avenue, Street of Dreams," (Atheneum), James Trager noted that Paul Goldberger's view of 900 Park Avenue when he was the architecture critic of The New York Times was that it was "a more serious violation" of the avenue's "spirit" than 733 because "it creates a sense of void at a crucial intersection."

In addition, Goldberger, Trager continued, identified architect Birnbaum as the designer of "most of the boring Second Avenue highrise towers" and maintained that at 900 Park Avenue he went "arty, and the results are dismal indeed."

View from across 79th Street

While 900 Park Avenue is more visible because 79th Street is a major cross street and its plaza is deeper than 733's, it is a more attractive building.

In their fine book, "New York 1960, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentenntial," Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman noted that "the negative impact of the building...was exacerbated by the fact that the plaza was recessed below the sloping grade of Park Avenue in a moat-like arrangement, which removing the hulking tower even more from the avenue's largely intact building wall."

View of the driveway from the east

As the most prolific designer of high-rise apartment towers in the city of his era, Birnbaum produced an astonishing array of plans and variations ranging from the banal to the quite interesting. His design here actually marked a definite upgrading of the stereotype, post-war residential tower, obviously reflecting its prime, elegant location.

The building replaced one of the last large corner townhouses on the Upper Eastside, which had been designed by John Mead Howells and Issac Newton Phelps Stokes in a collegiate style for John Sherman Hoyt in 1917. In an article in The New York Times, architectural historian Christopher Gray noted that Mr. Hoyt was an engineer, civic leader and a founder of the Boy Scouts of America. The house, he continued, was purchased in 1926 by James A. Stillman and subsequently had other owners.

View from the northeast

900 Park Avenue, left, looms over 910 Park Avenue, right

The 28-story, 122-unit condominium tower could have been better, but is handsome. The setback from the avenue is unfortunate. Developers cannot be expected to not take maximum advantage of existing zoning and this building reflects what the city's zoning then permitted. Plazas are not needed on Park Avenue for light and air, but they permitted developers to build taller buildings that obviously provide much more spectacular vistas for many apartments and those apartments command much higher values.

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