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.
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."
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."
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.
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.