Plots & Plans logo

Landmark Lunacy

Post-Demolition Hearing

Odd Policy for Odd-Job Building on 14th Street

Partially demolished building

Partially demolished Odd-Job Building on southwest corner of University Place and 14th Street

By Carter B. Horsley

The announcement by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on March 8, 2005 that it will hold a hearing on the proposed designation of the Odd-Job Building, formerly the Paterson Silk Building, designed by Morris Lapidus on the southwest corner of 14th Street and University Place may strike some as unusual since much of the building's frontage on 14th Street was demolished a few hours earlier and the city's Department of Building had approved its demolition March 1, 2005.

More importantly, the building in question was a two-story yellow-brick box with a four-story tower enclosed in glass on three sides at the corner. The tower had a rakish slant upwards towards the cross-street.

Lapidus is best known as the architect of the Fountainbleau and Eden Roc hotels in Miami and the Doubletree Metropolitan (originally the Summit, see The City Review article) on Lexington Avenue at 51st Street and the Sheraton Center on Seventh Avenue at 53rd Street. The Doubletree Metropolitan is presently undergoing some renovations. It and the Sheraton Center have not been designated official New York City landmarks, but the Doubletree Metropolitan and the Odd-Job Building will now be considered by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The Doubletree Metropolitan and the Sheraton Center are worthy of official city designation as individual landmarks because of their prominent departure from the city's traditional rectilinear building form and for their bold use of color. While they are not architectural masterpieces, they are highly representative of the architect's oeuvre and as such are important examples of post-war Modernist Architecture.

14th Street facade before demolition

Building before demolition of glass tower looking south down University Place

The Odd-Job/Paterson Silk building, on the other hand, is a very modest and minor work that was erected in 1949 and was distinguished primarily, indeed solely, by its glass corner tower that looks like a small suburban car dealership office of the period.

Side view

Side view of Odd-Job Building

Its frontage along University Place is particularly bland and mostly blank except for small second-story windows.  This long, windowless retail frontage is of the sort that has an extremely deadening effect on neighborhoods, particularly at such an important intersection as this at the southwest corner of Union Square.

As one of Manhattans major public spaces, Union Square has had a long and controversial history. Fortunately, it retains some of its architectural glories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which are some very distinguished and handsome mid-rise commercial structures along its west and north sides.  One of the finest, in fact, is directly across 14th Street from the Odd-Job building, a richly detailed Romanesque Revival-style limestone edifice at 1 Union Square West that was originally known as the Lincoln Building and was designed with a myriad of fenestration patterns by R. H. Robertson in 1890 and that is seemingly monumental and stately in comparison.

Tammany Hall, the center of much political controversy, occupied a site on the squares northeast side and during the Depression the square gained notoriety as the site of major labor protests.

Whereas 14th Street was once one of the citys most glamorous major cross-streets, hosting the Academy of Music Opera House, the legendary Luchow's Restaurant, and the elegant skyscraper headquarters of Con Edison, it fell on hard times as the citys prime residential areas moved north.  The Opera House was demolished and the Academy of Music movie theater provided twin bills, newsreels, cartoons, previews and vaudeville acts for 25 cents a ticket into the late 1940s and would eventually be converted a generation later into the extremely popular Palladium disco, whose interiors, designed by Arata Isozaki, were among the most flamboyant in the city.  The Palladiums success was relatively short-lived, however, and it succumbed to New York Universitys peripatetic wrecking ball and was replaced by dormitories of little distinction.

The Palladium was just to the west of the second-story Julian's Billiard Academy, for decades one of the city's largest and most famous.  The Third Avenue and 14th Street intersection for many years after World War II was one of the seediest in the city and its low-life elements would eventually take over Union Square so that by the late 1950s and the 1960s it was notorious as a drug haven.

For many New Yorkers, Union Square was typified by the S. Kleins store on the east side of the park between 14th and 15th Streets.  Its 19th Century buildings creaked, its floors sagged, and its tables of inexpensive clothes overflowed.  Hordes were attracted to its bargains and 14th Street between Fourth Avenue and Seventh Avenue became one of the citys busiest stretches offering very cheap goods.

It was in this context that the Odd-Job building was erected originally as a shoe store and then as a showcase retail outlet for Paterson Silks.  Odd-Job took over the low-rise property in 1998 at which time it undertook a good renovation of the property.

Union Square's downward fortunes were finally reversed by William Zeckendorf Jr.s erection in 1987 of his four-towered Zeckendorf Towers on the full block between Forth Avenue and Irving Place and 14th and 15th Streets, including most of the S. Klein-on-the-Square properties. S. Klein opened in 1921 and closed in 1975.

One might quibble that the Zeckendorf Towers project was a bit ungainly and not dignified enough to sit across Irving Place from Con Edisons grandiose clocktower, but that would be missing the forest.  The project was audacious in scale and concept and was very largely responsible for the very impressive and rapid renewal of this area.

Designed by Davis, Brody & Associates, the red-brick towers are each capped with illuminated and hollow pyramids that were precursors to the subsequent sprouting of skyline sculptural elements in the city.  The four towers are of equal height and the tallest structures fronting on Union Square although they are shorter than the ornate Con Edison tower, whose vista they partially disrupt from the square.

Zeckendorf Towers was the second of several extremely important pioneering ventures in the city by William Zeckendorf Jr., and his partners: in 1984, they built the Columbia apartment building at the northwest corner of Broadway and 96th Street, a project that led to the stunning rejuvenation of Upper Broadway on the Upper West Side; in 1989, they built the World-Wide Tower on the former site of Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue at 50th Street, a project that very significantly reinforced efforts to improve the Theater District and Times Square to say nothing of starting the upgrading of Eighth Avenue, then one of the citys seediest boulevards;

Union Squares health is critical to the well-being of several adjoining neighborhoods: Greenwich Village, the East Village, the Flatiron District and Gramercy Park.

Prior to the Civil War, Union Square (then known as Union Place) was a fashionable residential square and its park was surrounded by an iron fence.  It became an important theater district in 1854 with the opening of the Academy of Music on the site now occupied by Con Edison.  The park itself was opened in 1839 and with the construction of the subways it gained new importance as it became one of the citys most important subway stations serving several lines and it quickly became known as the citys Speakers Corner.

Architecturally, Union Square today is a mish-mash.  In addition to the above-mentioned 1 Union Square West building, its other glories are the original Bank of the Metropolis Building designed in 1903 by Bruce Price at 31 Union Square West, the former Decker Building designed by Alfred Zucker in 1893 at 33 Union Square West, the former Century Building designed by William Schickel in 1881 at 33 East 17th Street and the former Germania Life Insurance Company Building designed by Doench & Yost in 1911 at 200 Park Avenue South and now the W New York Hotel.

The square's newest landmark is the mixed-use building that occupies the 14th Street blockfront between Fourth Avenue and Broadway that was designed in 1999 by Davis Brody Bond and Schuman Lichtenstein Claman & Efron and is notable for its huge façade sculpture, and its large retail spaces.

These buildings contribute a good, dignified sense of history to Union Square, but do not make it a cohesive, elegant place comparable say to Gramercy Park or Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.  There are several uninspired structures that blunt the eye and detract from the square's ambience.  (The north end of the square is filled with a greenmarket on most weekends that is one of the most successful and popular in the city.  Unfortunately, the farmers trucks are an unnecessary visual blight that would be easily improved with a few cans of paint.)

It could be argued that the Odd-Job building was not the worst of the above-referenced uninspired structures.  Indeed, the rakishly angled roof of the small glass tower had a flair missing elsewhere in the square.  That flair, however, does not elevate the building to inspired status, or, more importantly, landmark status.  The fact that is was better than most of the buildings erected in the area by New York University is scant praise.  The Odd-Job building was, and is, entirely out of context with its important Union Square neighbors, the original Lincoln Building in particular.  Its low-rise height, furthermore, does not open up any significant vistas for the square and in fact the existing vista in that direction is quite dreary.  Its low-rise height, in addition, does not provide the square with abundant light and air and is possible mid-rise redevelopment is not likely to cast any devastating shadows.

The case for its preservation is marred by the fact that hours before the Landmarks Preservation Commission decided March 8, 2005, to hold a designation hearing on it and another New York City designed by the same architect, Morris Lapidus, the Doubletree Metropolitan Hotel that was originally the Loew's Summit on the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 51st Street, demolition of the glass tower had taken place under a permit approved March 1, 2005 by the New York City Department of Buildings.

The city cannot have it both ways.  It cannot approve action and then penalize those who take it.  This, of course, is not the first time the city has taken such an arbitrary and capricious stand.  Several years ago, it forced the developer of a new mid-rise apartment tower on the south side of 96th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues to demolish the top 12-stories of his building because the Buildings Department had made a mistake in reading a zoning map and had approved the project, which could have been built as it was by shifting its tower 12 feet on the developers site!

Such issues go to the heart of a very serious problem.  Which agency determines and enforces what can be built in the city?  Presumably the City Planning Commission determines what can be built and the Department of Buildings checks to make sure that buildings are in compliance.  This situation, however, is complicated by the fact the Landmarks Preservation Commission has the authority to approve changes to properties it has designated as landmarks.  This authority applies not just to wholesale demolition, but to changes to windows or cornices or stoops or the like.  It also applies not just to properties that are individually designated but also to properties that fall within the boundaries of official historic districts.

Now the city/landmarks commission is trying to apply that authority to a building that has not been designated as a landmark and that does not fall within a historic district and that has been significantly altered with the citys permission.

This ain't right.

One might consider firing the chairman and staff of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and/or the Department of Buildings, but you cant attack the property owner under such circumstances.  Government can be wonderful, but it is not necessarily always right.

Drastic measures, fortunately, are not probably not necessary.  The Odd-Job building, even if intact and complete, which it is not, is not worthy of landmark designation.  The Doubletree Metropolitan hotel, on the other hand, is.

The Doubletree Metropolitan Hotel's very sinuous plan and its façade color are hallmarks of Lapidus style and very unusual for a major structure in a prime Manhattan location.  As such, the building is definitely worthy of landmark designation as is Lapidus's design for the Sheraton Center (originally the Americana Hotel) on Seventh Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets, an even larger hotel.

Lapidus, who was best known for the Fountainebleau and Eden Roc hotels in Miami, died in 2001 at the age of 98.  In a fine March 26, 2001 article in New York magazine, critic Joseph Giovannini provided the following incisive commentary on Lapidus:

"Our architectural tradition derives from Americas manifest determination to push beyond boundaries into open frontier which in architecture has meant breaking the box.  Frank Lloyd Wright broke it in Midwestern suburbs with hovering horizontal planes that echoed the infinity of the horizon.  Lapidus did it in the city, where the challenge is more difficult.  He was a pragmatist, not a theoretician, and he first broke the box by necessity in his petri dish, the New York store.  With rents determined by the amount of frontage, stores in the twenties and thirties were narrow and deep.  Lapidus became an Alfred Hitchcock among architects by learning how to create spatial suspense that would lead customers from the front all the way to the back.  'I hated boxes, so all of my stores had sweeping curves and lines."

The Odd-Job building, however, has no curves and Lapidus's most important retail spaces in the city were created before World War II.  Indeed, a perusal of one of Robert A. M. Sterns tomes on New York City architecture in the thirties illustrates how much the city has lost in imaginative, dramatic and handsome retail stores.

There is a real question here of justice delayed is justice denied.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has declined to hold a designation hearing on Two Columbus Circle (see The City Review article) despite widespread sentiment in the architectural community that its design by Edward Durrell Stone is worthy of such designation.  When the commission was formed in 1965 in the wake of the demolition of Penn Station, it was apparently fearful that rich commercial property owners might legally challenge its mandate and therefore it was very slow to get around to designating the city's major skyscrapers.  Indeed, its first such designation was the American Radiator Building facing Bryant Park, not the Empire State or Chrysler Buildings, which eventually and many years later were designated.

The commission had been requested to hold hearings on several Modern properties including the designed by Lapidus.  Its regulations do not permit designation of properties less than 30 years old.  An article by Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times March 9, 2005, noted that Kathleen Randall, a representative for the New York-area chapter of Docomomo U.S., which works to identify, document  and protect buildings and sites of the Modern movement, said that Docomomo had made repeated requests for a preservation commission hearing on the two buildings over the last several months, adding that Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, said that if the buildings were designated as landmarks they could be restored.  Her article also quoted Mr. Tierney as stating that "It always takes time to consider particular buildings that are of relatively recent vintage that are not slam-dunk designable and that have been heavily altered over the years."

The commissions reports are usually very impressive and there can be no question preservation is important.  The commission clearly needs more funding to function properly and timely.  To cope with its problems, it has often resorted to designate large sections of the city as historic districts rather than making individual designation decisions about every building within such districts.  The logic is that one bad design can seriously hurt neighboring good designs.  There are two problems with this approach.  One is that good designs may in fact not be architectural masterpieces but merely nice, and not particularly rare, examples of a style.  The other is landmark designations supercede zoning, the purview of the City Planning Commission, and that changing fashions and taste often clash with political imperatives.

Urban design, urban planning and historic preservation are not sciences and like weapons of mass destruction they are not always slam-dunks.

Ideally, the commission should render impartial designations based on expert opinion and research that takes into account not only an individual property's architectural merits, but also its architectural context as well as its historical value.  A building may be wonderful even if George Washington did not sleep in it and it may be not very good even if he did. Similiarly, there are some great small buildings that definitely should be preserved and there are some nice small buildings that do not need to be preserved.

To imply that any building that is designated even after the fact of demolition can be restored is to suggest that we can regain Penn Station, the Singer Building, and Millionaires Row and scores of great neighborhood movie palaces.  That would be nice, but unlikely.

The real problem lies with the decision not to hold public hearings on proposed designations.  While New York City has been saddled with the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) syndrome for many years, there is no question that many civic do-gooders have raised important issues on many occasions and not always been wrong.  Such hearings should be timely so that both the public and the property owners are not held in limbo.

Even timely hearings will not avert all controversy, of course, but public hearings help accountability and foster faith in good, participatory government.

The Odd-Job building was not a jewel but neither was it a blemish. It is not included in any of the major New York City architectural guides. Its site offers an important opportunity to significantly improve Union Square and the neighborhood.  Perhaps a redevelopment on the site might doff its cap in Lapidus's direction by having a slightly rakish cornice reminiscent of the Odd-Job towers roofline, a sentimental but unnecessary gesture.  Lapidus's two major New York hotels and many other modern structures of the 1950s and 1960s are the fitting and sane targets for preservation not this glorified but not significant taxpayer.

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review