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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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;
health is critical to the well-being of several adjoining neighborhoods:
Greenwich Village, the East Village, the Flatiron District and
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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."
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.
a real question here of justice delayed is justice denied.
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
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."
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 planning and historic preservation are not sciences and
like weapons of mass destruction they are not always slam-dunks.
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.
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.
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.
hearings will not avert all controversy, of course, but public
hearings help accountability and foster faith in good, participatory
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.