By Carter B. Horsley
When the Landmarks Preservation Commission
indicated in October, 2006 (see The City
Review article) it did not like Sir Norman Foster's design
for a curved, reflective-glass, 22-story addition to the five-story
former Parke-Bernet Building at 980 Madison Avenue that Aby Rosen
wanted to erect it came as something of a surprise since the architect
is one of the most famous in the world and the developer owns
Lever House and the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, two of the
city's, and the world's, most famous icons of modern high-rise
That sleek proposal was the boldest on the
avenue, and the Upper East Side, since Marcel Breuer's Brutalist
design for the Whitney Museum of American Art, one block south
on the avenue. It would have added 18 condominium apartments on
22 floors and a large rooftop sculpture garden to the low-rise
building as well as restoring the much modified low-rise building
to its 1950 original design by Walker & Poor to house the
Parke-Bernet auction house as well as a Schrafft's restaurant.
In June, 2008, the architect and the developer
finally submitted a revised design that adds 5 more apartments
but dramatically lowers the height of the addition to 5 floors,
now stretched entirely over the roof of the existing building,
which will still be restored "fully."
Whereas the initial design would have had quite
a few apartments with spectacular views in most directions, the
revised design would have no skyline vistas. The new design uses
only 152,000 square feet of the 203,000 square feet permitted
under existing zoning and will seek Gold LEED certification as
an environmentally friendly structure. The earlier design did
not conform to existing regulations but the second design can
be built "as-of-right."
In making its presentation of the revised design,
Brandon Haw of Foster + Partners emphasized that neighborhood
and preservationist concerns about the height of the original
proposal, which was lower than the Hotel Carlyle directly across
the avenue, had definitely been heeded. Interestingly, the new
design significantly reduces the blocking of southern views from
the former Mark Hotel directly across 77th Street that is currently
being partially converted to residential condominiums, but the
presentation made no comment on such developer largesse towards
a competing project.
But the developer's sacrifice of views and
building bulk were not the only surprises.
The new design is clad in louvers, perhaps
champagne-colored, spaced three inches apart horizontally, in
strong contrast, at least in the presentation renderings, to the
limestone-clad exterior of the original building.
An unusual aspect of the louvers
is that part of them open, like shutters, and can also be "folded"
together like an accordion to create a large opening. The "shutters"
can also be opened at any angle.
The louvered façade of the "addition"
is actually only a screen in front of glazing and as such appears
to a certain extent as a solid mass that some preservationists
and critical neighbors said "overwhelms" the base, but
unlike Renzo Piano's battleship grey screen at his new skyscraper
on Eighth Avenue for The New York Times across from the
Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's bus terminal, Mr.
Foster's screen has moveable parts, perhaps a nostalgic throwback
to his spectacular proposal in 1978 for a mixed-use tower adjacent
to the Whitney Museum of American Art that had a slanted-glass
base as expansion for the museum but a sheer setback tower with
interchangeable black-metal panels with a variety of geometic
cutouts for windows, a stunning and sensational design, one of
Foster's finest, that should still be built.
The landmarks committee of Community Board
8 voted unanimously June 16, 2008 to endorse the restoration part
of the Rosen proposal, which was to be the next day at the Landmarks
Preservation Commission and considered the day afterwards at a
"full" meeting of Community Board 8. The board's landmark
committee voted 7 to 2, however, to oppose the granting of a certificate
of appropriates by the landmarks commission because it felt the
addition was inappropriate for the historic district.
George James, a member of an organization of
neighbors called New Yorkers for Responsible Development, told
the committee that the addition should be setback.
William Kahn, another member, said that the
design was "too loud from a visual perspective," a "patchwork,"
"a cacophony of textures with no integrity, no harmony,"
and was "out of context - a containership on a masonry base."
Tom Wolfe, left, and
Richard Feigen, right, sitting together at Landmarks Preservation
Commission hearing on revised plan
Richard Feigen, the famous art dealer, told
the landmarks committee of Board 8 that the design was "a
building in bad taste" that was "heavy at the top and
light at the bottom." He sat next to Tom Wolfe at the hearing
the next day at the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Shahab Karmely, a developer who lives several
blocks away from the site, spoke in support of what he described
as "a carefully thought-out design."
Elizabeth Ashby, president of the Historic
Neighborhood Alliance Inc., said that the plan "looks like
something that the Martians brought with them when they landed
on Madison Avenue, having made a stop in Venice for the cladding."
The full board's vote was 32 to 3 in favor
of the restoration aspects of the application and 23 to 11 against
Mr. Haw told the commission that this "veil"
part of the facade of the addition will add "a mysterious
feeling" and would be a "contemporary" addition
to the "elegance" of the Upper East Side. The "veil"
is a few feet in front of the addition's glazing. Mr. Haw had
indicated that a final determination of its color had not yet
been made but that it would probably be somewhere "between
champagne and terra-cotta."
After a detailed presentation by the developer
and his team, Pablo E. Vengoechea, vice-chairman of the commission,
took public testimony from various civic groups and individuals
including Tom Wolfe, the writer, who was not wearing a white suit.
Because of the lateness of the meeting, the commissioners did
not comment or vote on the application and Mr. Vengoechea said
that another meeting will be scheduled "shortly."
At the commission's hearing, Mr. Wolfe urged
the architect to "come up with something more in keeping
with Upper East Side."
Many of the speakers indicated they were impressed
with many aspects of the plan although they had some reservations.
A statement from the Historic Districts Council,
said that "The applicant has taken time and considerable
thught to create an addition that better rleates to the Parke-Bernet
Buidling and the Upper East Side Historic District, something
the prior applicaton completed lacked. If this were a new building
proposed for a vacant lot, it could be very acceptable,"
adding that "If it were an addition to a non-landmarked building,
it would be an exciting project. Whether it belongs atop a fully
designed and constructed building of some acclaim and history
in a landmarked district was a matter of much discussion. Some
on the committee felt the addition with the accompanying restorative
work was appropriate. Others believed that the addition overwhelmed
the building, damaged its design and its relationship to the neighboring
structures. Still others found the project interesting, but feared
it set a dangerous precedent for every low-scale building in an
historic distirct to be considered a base for something more."
The statement said that many of its members
believe that "an addition should be subservient to the original,
historic structure," adding that "Knowing that zoning
prohibits a set back of this addition, we would recommend taking
it down a floor or do" as "Doing so would decrease what
some felt was a heavy design suffocating the Parke-Bernet Building."
"The committee appreciates the nod to other buildings in
the districts with limestone bases and brick upper floors, but
we feel the examples do not quite fit here. In such buildings
the upper brick portions are all taller than the limestone base,
none are split through h emiddle. With this in mind, and, again,
in attempt to make the addition less heavy, the committee thought
a lighter color would be more appropriate."
The council also commented on the proposed
openable louvers and suggested that they "should fold inward"
rather than "tilt out a number of feet from the facade"
Although, the statement continued, the organization
consistently argues for "the smallest rooftop additions on
row houses to be minimally visible," "the prevailing
sentiment was that with some refinement, this is an opportunity
for the Upper East Side to have a world-class building of the
21st Century along with the restoration of the mid-century Parke-Bernet
A statement from the Municipal Art Society
read by Lisa Kersavage, director of advocacy and policy, said
that "The proposed addition is a counterpoint to the historic
building, and is essentially a 'building placed upon a building.'
Yet in terms of scale and massing, it is in equilibrium with the
Parke-Bernet Building and lets the historic building 'breathe.'
That 'breathing room' is in part provided by the reveal that visually
separates the addition. The committee members believe that the
façade recess as designed, which is required by the Madison
Avenue Special District zoning, diminishes the relationship of
the base to the addtion and should be further studied."
"The Upper East Side," the statement
declared, "has a world-class collection of contemporary architecture
that is largely under-recognized. That collection is in part due
to the Parke-Bernet Building. When the new auction house for Parke-Bernet
opened..., it lured many galleries and arts institutions back
to the neighborhood from downtown. Through the 1950s to the 1970s
the Upper East Side was a worldwide center for the arts and new
design. The Guggenheim and Whitney Museums and the now destroyed
Hans Hollein-designed Feigen Galleries [on the north side of 79th
Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues] are all examples of
architecture stemming from the art world, which challenged and
provoked yet still responded to the neighborhood's context."
"The MAS preservation committee,"
the statement continued, "had many discussions of this as
a total architectural design, and in the end its appropriateness
within the district it was found to be acceptably appropriate.
Appropriateness is a range, and the committee thinks it does just
cross the threshold of appropriateness. We did not come to the
conclusion lightly and in no way see that this could be a model
for additions on other buildings....One of the fundamental components
of making this project appropriate is the extensive restoration
of the Pake-Bernet Buidling. The simplicity and elegance of the
Parke-Bernet's design has been eroded over the last 50 years by
inappropriate additions and alterations. The proposed restoration,
including the removal of the 5th story extension, the removal
of third story windows and restoration of the limestone will bring
back its former dignity."
"With some modifications," the MAS
statement concluded, "we believe that this proposal meets
the exceedingly difficult challenge of providing a large addition
that does not subsumethe historic building but respects and enlivens
A statement from Friends of the Upper East
Side Historic Districts said that the new proposal is "a
vast improvement" and "we appreciate that the proposed
bulk is less than would be permitted under existing zoning."
Its statement said that "the prevailing sentiment was that
with some refinement, this is an opportunity for the Upper East
Side to have a world-class building of the 21st Century along
with the restoration of the mid-century Parke-Bernet Galleries.
Despite its austerity, Parke-Bernet was and will be a very distinguished,
elegant and understated building. If something is going to be
built on top of it, it should be elegant and appropriate, separating
itself from the orignal Parke-Bernet Building. Foster and Partners
achieves this differentiation though materiality and a break in
space. The new four-story plus penthouse addition hovers over
the old via a recessed base, creating a clear definition between
past and present. However, we do have questions regarding the
interweaving bronze rods that create the skin of the addition.
While innovative and richly textured, the bronze colors in the
renderings seems rather dark, and appear like a heavy weight compressing
the original building....It is our hope that Foster and Partners'
addition for 980 Madison avenue will show that hte Upper East
Side Historic District can embrace innovation and contemporary
architecture.We must care for our old buildings in our beloved
historic districts but also allow for appropriate development
and innovative design for future generations to admire."
Frederick Bell of the New York Chapter of the
American Institute of Architects praised the revised design as
"a unique and stirking building" and "a worthy
project." A spokesman for the New York Landmarks Conservancy
said his organization was "generally pleased" with the
redesign but had concerns about the bronze "screen."
In a June 12, 2008 letter to the commission
that was read at the commission's hearing, Peter Pennoyer and
Anne Walker argued that "This second attempt by the developer
and his architect to seek approval for a new structure atop this
building suggests that the Landmarks Preservation Commission should
swallow the serious problems this project presents. In fact, this
design would inflict much of the same damage as the first proposal."
"The addition has no relationship to the
scale, materials or spirit of the original Parke-Bernet building.
The design has the perfunctory character of a zoning diagram rendered
in glass and steel. Like many modern buildings - and 980 Madison
is exactly that - this landmark depends on a few critical qualities
for its stature: proportion, massing and details. The proposed
addition compromises these qualities.
"The detail where the addition pulls away
from the top of 980 Madison emphasizes the completely foreign
character of the Foster design.
"As a glass and steel box, the scheme
is unsympathetic to Alfred Easton Poor's architecture and a banal
nonsequitor in the context of the Upper East Side Historic District.
980 Madison presents a spare and elegant reading of classical
proportion. As a relatively low building along Madison Avenue
it marks the foreground for some of the taller and more significant
hotels and apartment/hotels in the neighborhood, such as the Mark,
the Carlyle and 953 Fifth Avenue, designed by I. N Phelps-Stokes.
"We note that the addition uses the floor
area that would be available as-of-right under the zoning code,
but as the Commission has demonstrated in case after case, in
this district and others, the criteria of Landmarks designation
trump the zoning code. Indeed it would be unprecedented given
the record of rejection of even modest roof top additions were
this proposal to be endorsed. As a precedent,
approval of this addition would establish a basis for many property
owners in this district to seek to expand buildings. This expansion
would radically transform the character of the neighborhood. Given
the Commission's record of painstaking scrutiny of every modification
to the architecture of the Upper East Side Historic Districts
it would seem blatantly unfair to the many property owners in
the area whose applications for modest additions have been denied.
"More important, acceptance of this design
would mark a retreat in the protection of this extraordinary part
of New York City whose distinct architectural quality is described
in the Upper East Side Historic District Designation Report (1981)
as follows: As a result of the development patterns on Madison
Avenue, the vistas up and down the avenue are characterized by
an irregular skyline caused by the combination of tall apartment
houses and low rowhouses and commercial buildings. . . . a modular
rhythm is maintained that is derived from the basic 20-25 foot
width of the rowhouses. This module corresponds to the party walls
of the rowhouses and the bay system of the apartment buildings.
The storefronts with their variety and the rowhouses and apartment
house facades with their greater uniformity and intricate stylistic
detail each have their own architectural ambience. Together, they
coexist and contribute to the Madison Avenue streetscape.
"In 1949, architect William Adams Delano
singled out the Parke-Bernet Gallery (Walker & Poor, 1949)
as a building that 'combines all the best of traditional and modern
schools of architectural thought' and 'demonstrates to others
that distinction in commercial building pays.' (William Adams
Delano Papers, Yale University). The Upper East Side Historic
District Designation Report (1981) described it as a 'significant
post-war addition.' Given the building's significance and quality,
we hope it won't become a base for Sir Norman Foster's proposed
The revised Foster design is quite interesting
and a major concession to the objections raised by many civic
activists and preservationists over the height of tyhe first design,
objections that served primarily to protect vistas from the Carlyle
and Mark hotels and reflect the very strong and sentiment by such
groups in the neighborhood against tall new developments. Such
sentiments, however, are unreasonable and the Carlyle and Mark
hotels have no legal rights to protected views and the handsome
first design was certainly not a supertower that would overwhelm
the neighborhood. The basic problem here is with the spirit and
interpretation of the "sanctity" of historic districts.
Should they be preserved in aspic - this is the Upper
East Side after all? Or should one of the most desirable and famous
neighborhoods in the world occasionally welcome, on a case-by-case
basis, interesting and attractive new additions. Despite the voluminous
testimony about the virtues of the existing building as a good
example of post-war International Style modernity, the Parke-Bernet
Building was not an architectural masterpiece in either its original
incarnation or its much modified present condition. (It should
be noted, also, that the Hotel Carlyle was a much more important
Art Deco style skyscraper in its original incarnation that instantly
became the most visible landmark on the Upper East Side skyline,
a position it held for many decades even though it was often modified
with window carbuncles whose visible scars are unfortunate.
Historic districts present many problems. The
Greenwich Village Historic District, for example, encompasses
more than 4,000 properties, many of which are not pretty 19th
Century townhouses. The notion of "context" is important
but even most preservationists will concede that not all parking
lots and garages and tenement buildings are beautiful and worthy
of preservation. The landmarks commission categories buildings
within these districts as contributing and "non-contributing."
While the former Parke-Bernet Building may be "contributing,"
its real value is as a low-rise structure that continues the avenue's
"high-and-down," hilly topography on the Upper East
Some preservationists have protested that the
revised design "overwhelms" the existing building while
applauding the developer's intention to "fully" restore
to it to its original "glory." Given the fact that the
"full" restoration is likely to be very expensive, what
addition would not "overwhelm" it. Clearly the first
design would be less overwhelming if one were considering only
the "sanctity" of the existing building as it would
have only been over a small fraction of its roof and furthermore
would have been significantly setback from the base to say nothing
of providing a major rooftop sculpture garden.
Given the remarkable concessions in bulk that
the revised design presents, the issue of "overwhelming"
comes down primarily to the issues of the addition's color and
The model and renderings presented at the Community
Board and the commission unfortunately indicated that the addition
would be bronze-colored, even though Mr. Haw indicated that a
final color has not yet been determined. There are many observers
who feel that additions should be clearly indicated as different
and that the visual contrast makes for a purer sense of respect
for the original building as opposed to a "reproduction."
It is an on-going argument that really should only be decided,
again, on a case-by-case basis rather than sweeping, district-wide
regulations. It could well be argued, however, that a lighter-colored
addition, perhaps in stainless steel, might be more palatable
than a dark mass.
The revised design pays considerable heed to
the proportions of the original building and the architect argues
that it essential duplicates the proportions of the base, which
is true, but certainly not the sole compelling argument for its
approval. The design does indent the first level of the addition,
which has the effect of separating it and "floating"
it above the base, an excellent design that recalls the fine indentation
at the former C.I.T. building on the west side of Madison Avenue
between 59th and 60th Streets.
The indented space helps a lot, but perhaps
the massing above it could be setback on the east, north and side
sides to further mitigate the "overwhelming" problem
and perhaps that loss of space would necessitate the addition
of another floor, or two.
For those who fondly remember watching John
Marion conduct the major auctions in the Parke-Bernet Building,
the structure holds very fond memories, made even sadder by the
decision of Sotheby's, which acquired Parke-Bernet, to relocate
to the far less convenient and far less elegant precinct at York
Avenue aned 72nd Street. Had Sotheby's not relocated and were
to be proposing an expansion at the Madison Avenue site now it
would probably not have aroused as much opposition.
With some tinkering about the material and
color of the louvers and some experimenting with setting back
the bulk of the addition somewhat, perhaps 10 feet or so, the
new design would essentially be a relatively modest and unobstrusive
addition that would pay for the restoration of the existing building.
Furthermore, by setting back the addition somewhat concerns about
the "chaotic" and "random" opening of the
"shutters" would be minimized. Most shutters are kept
open but the developer's presentation contained no studies on
probably consumer usage, which would be interesting. In any event,
now that Santiago Calatrava's "bird" transportation
hub at Ground Zero has had its wings clipped and will not have
a moveable roof the city deserves an animated building and Foster's
"shutters" are very, very elegant appropriately for
the Upper East Side.