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141 Fifth Avenue

Rendering of dome apartment at 141 Fifth Avenue

By Carter B. Horsley

The curves of a circular window, or oculus, conjure voluptuous softness, a quality that is missing from a lot of normal, rectilinear architecture.

In some cases, such as the residential conversion of the commercial building at 141 Fifth Avenue, such windows, or oculi, reinforce curves elsewhere on the building such as at the corner and on its dome. The rendering above is of the penthouse, roof terrace and dome of the building, which was designed by Robert Maynicke in 1897 for the Merchant's Bank of New York. 141 Fifth Avenue was one of lower Fifth Avenue's most beautiful commercial buildings with a stunning Beaux-Arts facade. This fourteen-story building was originally the Merchant's Bank of New York in 1897. It was smartly covered during the conversion in a faux representation of what the façade will look like as opposed to the usual glaring construction site. The New York City Landmarks Conservation commended the design, by architectural firm Cetra/Ruddy. The lower two floors are for commercial use; with the above ten floors housing 38 condominium units.

Manhattan has many oculi, some simple and some multi-paned. Most are circular, but some are elliptical.

Oculi have been used in a wide variety of architectural styles.

1130 Fifth Avenue

1130 Fifth Avenue

All the windows are oculi on the top floor of the very handsome, Georgian-style mansion at 1130 Fifth Avenue on the northeast corner at 94th Street that was built by Delano & Aldrich for Willard Straight, who married Dorothy Paine Whitney. It subsequently housed the International Museum of Photography and was converted back to single-family use a few years ago by Bruce Kovner.

Eagle Court at 215 West 84th Street

The mid-block apartment building known as Eagle Court at 215 West 84th Street also has oculi as all its top floor windows, but adds two more at the sides of the building on the second floor, one of which, one of the more ornately framed in the city, is shown above.

1040 Park Avenue

1040 Park Avenue

The Eagle Court oculi are single-paned in contrast to the multi-paned ones at the corners of the top floor at 1040 Park Avenue, one of which is shown, above. The building was designed in 1923 by Delano & Aldrich and was famous for its penthouse that was initially occupied by Condé Nast, the publisher.

While such oculi topped off a building just beneath its cornice, some others are used to "break up" a building's mass.


1324 Lexington Avenue

1324 Lexington Avenue

The six-story apartment building at 1324 Lexington Avenue on the northwest corner at 88th Street, for example, has pairs of oculi on the second through the sixth floors in the center of the building above its entrance.

A lot of oculi, in fact, are used to highlight entrances.

55 East 77th Street

55 and 57 East 77th Street

The townhouse building at 55 East 77th Street has an elliptical, multi-paned oculus just to the east of its stoop and the front of the building was used as the house where Robert Redford's CIA colleagues were murdered in "Three Days of The Condor." Interestingly, the less ornate, adjacent building at 57 East 77th Street has a prominent oculus just above its entrance.

60 East 88th Street

60 East 88th Street

The mid-block apartment building at 60 East 88th Street has a very large oculus on the second floor above its entrance. The 15-story building was designed in 1986 by Beyer Blinder Belle and it has only 18 apartments.

The Bromley

The Bromley at 225 West 83rd Street

The red-brick 308-unit apartment building at 225 West 83rd Street, which is known as the Bromley, is most notable for its oculi on its top five floors and around much of its base above the retail spaces and in the middle of a three-story, white-colored base. Designed by Costas Kondylis of Philip Birnbaum & Associates, it was developed by William L. Haines and Haseko Inc.

In their definitive "A.I.A. Guide to New York City, Third Edition," (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), Elliot Willensky and Norval White remark that this building is "a chunky filler of Broadway's belly," adding that "Post Modern green glazing with limestone gives a graceful edge to West 83rd Street and a serrated neo-Dutch profile."
Although the oculi are something of a design gimmick, they and the building are quite attractive. This is one of the more desirable buildings in the area, which is pretty desirable because of a nearby a major Barnes & Noble bookstore and Zabar's. It is also across Broadway from a popular Chinese restaurant, Ollie's.


Former AT&T building on Madison Avenue

The former A. T. & T. Building with Spirt of Communications statue in tall lobby with oculus and oculi in side atriums

Perhaps the city's most controversial oculi can be found at the Sony Buildig at 550 Madison Avenue that was erecgted in 1984 as the A. T. & T. Building. It was designed by Philip Johnson/John Burgee with a large oculus over its mid-block entrance on the avenue and three oculi on the base of the buidling on the sidestreets atriums.

The announcement of this project made the front page of The New York Times not because of its size or economic impact, but because of its heralding of a new architectural era.

With its eye-catching, Chippendale-style, broken-front roof pediment, the tower became the most famous "Post-Modern" building in the country.

It was not the first building of its time to base its style on historical allusion, of course, but it was the most prominent and most publicized. Because Johnson and Burgee were the nation's most favored corporate architects at the time and because A. T. & T. was not a minor company, the design took on even greater significance and clout.

Its 37-stories belie its considerable height largely because its entrance is about 7 stories tall and had been specifically designed to accommodate and house the spectacular, large gilded statue, "The Spirit of Communications," by Evelyn Longman Batchelder, that had formerly been perched atop A. T. & T.'s former headquarters building at 195 Broadway in Lower Manhattan overlooking historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The statue was the city's finest and most elegant skyline ornament since August St. Gaudens's great gilded statue of Diana that had stood atop the tower of the old, demolished Madison Square Garden on Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

The decision to remove the statue from the downtown building and put it in the new building's lobby surprisingly did not become a major public controversy even though it desecrated the integrity of the great building downtown and violated the artistic intentions of the sculptor. Such concerns were largely forgotten because of controversies over the Post-Modern design of the tower and over the tower's looming bulk without setbacks on such a narrow avenue in such a congested area. The statue controversy also was ameliorated somewhat by Johnson's rather spectacular entrance setting for it which placed it on a pedestal beneath a gilded vault and behind a very large, arched, multi-paned window. The window gave the statue visibility from across the street.

The window's panes, however, made it seem imprisoned, much like a saint in a famous Raphael mural in the Vatican. For the public daring enough to enter the high-security lobby, the view of the statue was dramatic but awkward because of the relatively narrow lobby space, as shown in the picture below, that precludes any full appreciation of the tall statue even though one could walk around it.

Indeed, it was Post-Modern rape, twice over, since the excellent statue, gay or not, and probably not, was abducted to New Jersey when A.T.&T. abandoned this building to Sony.

When the building was sold to Sony, furthermore, the city agreed to let the new owner enclose the galleries with windows that were similar to the multi-paned treatment used at the building's entrance, as shown in the picture above. The newly enclosed galleries, however, were no longer available as public open space and were permitted to be converted into showrooms for Sony products. Sony also blocked oculi openings, which were the nicest feature of the spaces as seen in the picture at the right. It did not, however, lower the ceilings, but did fill the high spaces with large banners and lighting fixtures heralding their products and the redesign resulted in a very cluttered appearance that hopefully, and likely, will be redesigned.

At the same time, the city permitted Sony to partially enclose the formerly open but skylit, through-block atrium behind the tower, as shown at the left. The atrium separates the tower from a low-rise building that was part of the original A. T. & T. development. The low-rise building originally was designed to contain a showroom for A. T. & T. products and exhibitions and some retail space. The showroom was opened, but never was very successful, a reflection more on the quality of its exhibitions than its design. Part of the retail space was rented for several years to The Quilted Giraffe, one of the city's most expensive French restaurants that had been formerly located several blocks away. The restaurant changed its cuisine to incorporate a lot of Japanese cuisine and its new interior design was very modern and very handsome. The restaurant, however, closed after several years. The atrium also had kiosks and large hanging lanterns that were bulbous and looked like they were transplanted from some 1960's hotel atrium's outside elevator bank.

The city's acquiescence with the Sony designs was an incredulous and egregious error as the changes violated the building's original design integrity and, more importantly, appropriated for commercial use the public space of the original gallerias for which the project had received a substantial zoning bonus that enabled the building to contain more office space. There was a little public debate that did not change the result substantially. A new, unattractive banner proclaims that the new Sony Plaza is public and there is some public seating that resulted from the fact that the new corporate showrooms do not extend all the way back to the through-block atrium.
In an ideal world, every public official who voted to approve this change should never be re-elected.

Presumably, part of the rationale in approving the new Sony Plaza was that the old A. T. & T. Plaza had been neither successful nor popular, particularly in contrast to the adjacent IBM atrium. The buildings, of course, were developed independently and had never been coordinated with one another. The IBM Building, however, had been coordinated to a certain extent with the Trump Tower/Bonwit Teller buildings that abut its atrium.

The three towers, however, cannot be considered in total isolation as their visual impact on the skyline and on the plaza district's economy and liveliness is immense.

Regardless of their individual merits, these three towers significantly upgraded the Plaza district with the high quality of their designs and rich materials. Their proximity intensified vertiginous impact on pedestrians while adding character and color to the neighborhood. The Sony Building is clad in unpolished, pink granite while the IBM facade is polished, dark green granite and Trump Tower is clad in reflective, bronze-tinted glass. Because of the spacing provided by the low-level Bonwit Teller Building, which became the Galleries Lafayette Building and then was rebuilt in 1996 into a Nike store, this tower trio is less vibrant but more successful than the tower troika consisting of Carnegie Hall Tower and the Metropolitan Tower, both on 57th Street between the Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue, and CitySpire behind them, across 56th Street. Both of these "tuning-fork" trios bring to midtown the staggering, cliff-hanging precipitousness that defined the Financial District's romantic skyline and heady, canyonesque pedestrian experience.

Johnson/Burgee devoted a great deal of their design efforts in many major projects to fenestration experimentation. Here, they stressed the tower's verticality by recessing the narrow windows and their spandrels and omitting corner windows to let the handsome and finely detailed pink granite facade convey a powerful sense of monumentality. While the fenestration pattern is a bit fussy, the overall effect of the shaft portion of the tower is quite attractive because the minimalization of windows augments its substantiality.

The famous Chippendale-like top is simple and very bold and even better at night when its curved cutout is well-illuminated, adding a kind, emanating mystery, and occasionally steam. The analogy to a highboy, however, is so apt and unavoidable that it is hard not to be overcome by the trivializing association. Giganticism can often have wonderful shock value, but buildings, if not owners, are relatively permanent and not toy building blocks, especially at such a prominent site.

There is nothing inherently wrong with appropriating forms from other disciplines and the thought of a childlike "toy city" has entered our culture with Disneylands and "Learning From Las Vegas" insights from architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Isenour. It is an undeniable plus for a city to have a major corporation erect a major edifice and when the city, or midtown district, already has a chaotic melange of styles, it is alright to encourage new "design statements." The city is unquestionable better off for A.T. & T.'s investment and venture. It should be noted, however, that its castration, or rather beheading, of its former headquarters was despicable, more so than Sony's bastardization of the public spaces.

A. T. & T. had actually moved most of its headquarters operations to an enormous and very impressive facility in Basking Ridge, N.J., where it presumably absconded with its great statue when it sold the Madison Avenue building to Sony, which now uses the lobby for a modern sculpture. The Basking Ridge facility does not actively encourage public visits and hopefully the company will see fit at some future enlightened moment to return the statue to its rightful home in Manhattan. A fitting solution might be to place it on some high, elegant pedestal at an extremely important and prominent public site that, conceivably could be renamed A. T. & T. Plaza. Such a site could be at Battery Park City, or Battery Park, or the promenade at Ellis Island, or Bryant Park, or even putting it back on its original perch where the new owner of the building, Peter Kalikow, put up a gilded orb, which was pleasantly thoughtful, but not as inspiring. Such a solution would go a long way to clearing up the company's ignominy with regard to urban amenities and civic responsibility.

What inspired Sony to purchase such a Post-Modern landmark, which is still too young to be considered for designation as an official city landmark because of the city's archaic and timid landmark regulations, is very hard to understand. Sony's product innovations and elegant product design would lead one to assume that its major facilities would have a somewhat consistent design philosophy, or motif, namely, something high-tech, modern, dazzling, and maybe even abstract.

Presumably, the sun will rise someday on a new owner of this "abused" building and nurture it back to normalcy and Sony will entice and enchant the city with some of the brilliance that has made Japanese design and architecture the world's most fascinating for almost two decades.
This story needs a happier ending.

In January, 2000, A. T. & T. offered to return "Golden Boy" to New York, but in April, 2000 announced it had decided to keep it. A spokesman for the company, John Heath, was quoted in an article by Shaila Dewan in the April 4, 2000 edition of The New York Times as stating that "We were not able to find a suitable home for him elsewhere." The same article quoted New York City Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern as stating that the city would "put him on a pedestal with the Statue of Liberty" and that the city had offered A. T.& T. three sites, one at the Washington Market Park, one atop 195 Broadway, its original home, and one at 346 Broadway that had once been topped by a large bronze eagle.

Since the products in the retail spaces are made by Sony, the showrooms are by and large well-designed and interesting, but they completely violate the architectural integrity of Johnson/Burgee's famous design for the building and make a mockery of the city's overseeing and guidance of proper plaza usage.

In his book, "Privately Owned Public Spaces The New York Experience," (John Wiley & Sons, 2000) Jerold S. Kayden, to his great credit, discusses Sony's 1992 proposal at length, noting that it "bluntly raised the question when, if ever, privatization of public space should be formally allowed":

"Specifically, Sony proposed to eliminate 10,560 square feet of arcade, reducing it from 14,102 to 3,542 square feet, and to replace it with 6,050 square feet of indoor retail space, much of it along the Madison Avenue frontage. Were this all to the proposal, the answer would be easy, since Sony not only would be decreasing public space but would also be increasing private floor area. What made this a matter for legitimate public debate was Sony's sweetener: its offer to enlarge its covered pedestrian space, located at the rear of the building and connecting East 55th and 56th Streets, from 5,625 square feet to 9,731 square feet and to render it climate controlled. Sony was offering an additional 4,106 square feet of covered pedestrian space and a general enhancement of its qualities in exchange for a reduction of 10,560 square feet of 'as-of-right' arcade. Sony also proposed to eliminate 1,324 square feet of retail space fronting the covered pedestrian space, and to replace the AT&T Infoquest Center with its own exhibit center, called SonyWonder Technology Lab, in the annex. The zoning arithmetic worked out as follows. Reflecting the judgment that, square foot for square foot, a covered pedestrian space is more valuable to the public and more expensive to construct than an arcade, the Zoning Resolution generally authorized a substantially greater bonus per square foot of covered pedestrian space. In the Sony case, at a rate of 11 square feet of bonus floor area for every square foot of covered pedestrian space, the additional covered pedestrian space would generate a bonus of 45,166 square feet. At a rate of three square feet of bonus floor area for every square foot of arcade, the lost 10,560 square feet of arcade would reduce the building's zoning floor area entitlement by 31,680 square feet. Thus, even after Sony would have constructed 6,050 square feet of new retail space in the old arcade space, that would still leave it with an unused entitlement of more than 7,000 square feet of building. And that would be before counting the 1,324 square foot reduction of retail space in the covered pedestrian space. In short, in the arcane world of zoning bonuses for privately owned public spaces, it could be argued, the public woule emerge more than whole, with less, but more valuable, public space. The City agreed with this reasoning and approved Sony's application in 1992, concluding that the public benefit associated with the changes exceeded the public benefit associated with the existing configuration."

Kayden goes on to argue that as completed the spaces work well, but concludes that "As for the lost arcade spaces, it would be a mistake to romanticize them," adding that "during much of the year, they were cold, dark, and windy."

Kayden neglects to discuss the utter prostitution of the building's architecture, nor the fact that perhaps the city gave in to Sony because it did not want to antagonize such an international powerhouse especially when the city was in the midst of a very, very severe recession. The city's decision to grant these changes was and is unconscionable and outrageous and inexcusable even though the Sony retail spaces, designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, are pleasant because of Sony's great products on display.


346 West 17th Street

346 West 17th Street

Albert C. Ledner designed three buildings for the National Maritime Union in New York in the 1960s with porthole facades that Christopher Gray described in a November 25, 2007 article in The New York Times as "impudent in the face of doctrinaire modernism." Two of the buildings were on Ninth Avenue at 17th Street and both were converted, separately, to hotels. The third building was eventually acquired by St. Vincent's Hospital and converted to the O'Toole Medical Services Building on Seventh Avenue at 12th Street. The hospital decided it needed to expand and wanted to replace the O'Toole Building with a major new hospital and sell its existing complex of buildings to the Rudins who would convert many of the buildings to apartments as well as erecting some new residential buildings. The hospital's plan became a major controversy. The O'Toole building did not have true oculi but its scalloped lower edge of its cantilevered floors evoked portholes, which, of course, are oculi. Eventually, the city approved the demolition of the O'Toole Building and the hospital's expansion plans but only after forcing several design revisions.


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