By Carter B. Horsley
Aby Rosen is a real estate
developer and owner of the Seagram Building and Lever House, two
of the city's most famous and influential post-war office buildings.
Lord Norman Foster is one of
the world's leading architects (see The City Review article on his recently completed
Hearst Building project)
and has recently designed a mixed-use tower for Mr. Rosen at 610
Lexington Avenue (see The
City Review article).
His design of a major office tower at Ground Zero for Silverstein
Properties was also recently unveiled (see The City Review article).
Mr. Rosen has asked Lord Foster to design a
"rooftop addition" for 980 Madison Avenue, the 5-story,
limestone-clad Carlyle Galleries Building at 980 Madison Avenue
across Madison Avenue from the Carlyle Hotel, the most prominent
landmark on the Upper East Side west of Third Avenue since it
was erected in 1930.
The Carlyle Galleries building was originally
erected as a four-story building to house the Parke-Bernet auction
house in 1950 by Robert Dowling as a "light-protector"
for the Carlyle Hotel, which Mr. Dowling then owned. In 1987,
980 Madison was altered with the addition of many windows along
its Madison Avenue frontage between 76th and 77th Streets and
a fifth floor.
The building lies within the Upper East Side
Historic District and the Madison Avenue Preservation Special
District, which limits the height of new buildings to 210 feet.
Mr. Rosen bought 980 Madison Avenue last year
for about $120 million with the intention of developing its unused
"air rights" and Lord Foster has designed a slender
tower with 22 floors with a plan of two interlocked ellipses for
the north end of the low-rise building. The plan also entails
removing the floor that was added in 1987 and restoring the base
to something close to the original. Mr. Rosen plans for a 10,000-square-foot
public sculpture garden for much of the rooftop of the low-rise
base and to devote about 24,000 square feet on two floors in the
base structure for art exhibition space.
The proposed tower be clad in glass and according
to Lord Foster will be very "green," that is, environmentally
friendly. As the tower of the Carlyle Hotel is at the south end
of the blockfront across from 980 Madison Avenue, the proposed
tower will only block vistas to the northwest from the Carlyle
Hotel. It will, however, block a lot of southern vistas from the
Mark Hotel, across 77th Street, which was recently acquired by
Alexico Management with the intention of converting it to residential
condominiums. Mr. Rosen plans only 18 condominiums for the proposed
22-story "rooftop-addition" that will rise 355 feet
above Madison Avenue.
The application for a certificate of appropriateness
from the Landmarks Preservation Commission presents a very proper
preservation battle in which a highly prominent and respected
real estate investor and developer and a very famous architect
want to develop an "iconic" modern building in the midst
of the city's richest historic district that harbors some of the
city's most fervent preservationists.
The battle goes to the heart of historic districts,
almost none of which in the city are 100 percent "pure,"
which is to say that historic district designations in the city
have encompassed many "non-contributing" buildings that
few people seriously want to preserve but which many preservationists
want to control and try to make their redevelopment, or alteration,
compatible with their neighbors.
Historic districts are the battlement of contextual
architecture, architecture that is homogenous and conservative.
A building included in an historic district is subject to the
same strict regulations imposed by the commission as an individual
landmark and these regulations usually entail considerable added
expense to the owner in terms of materials, research, design fees,
and the costs of submitting plans for review and approval by the
commission. Such costs, on the other hand, is balanced to a degree
by the fact that landmark designation usually results in higher
Mr. Rosen's team focused primarily on the preservation
aspects of his proposal rather than on the aesthetics of the addition,
a tactic not without some justification but one that might hurt
The existing building would have its added
floor removed as well as many windows along Madison Avenue and
thus returned to its original state when it was built to house
the Parke-Bernet auction house, then the most prestigious in the
country. Parke-Bernet would many years later be taken over by
Sotheby's, which then moved its operations, which had made Madison
Avenue in the mid-70s the center of the city's art world, to York
Avenue and 72nd Street, infuriating many art collectors forced
to make much longer and less attractive trips, but sparking a
lot of new real estate development in that area.
Christopher Moore and vice-chair Pablo Vengoechea
Mr. Rosen's team tried to convince the commission
that a restored building at 980 Madison with a lower floor and
far fewer windows was a worthy preservation cause, an argument
that sounds good on paper for preservationists but which in fact
denies that fact that the proportions of the existing building
and its fenestration pattern are far better and less sterile.
In an event, lost in the conversations was the fact that the existing
building at 980 Madison Avenue is not an architecture masterpiece
although it has served a good urbanistic cause.
Not only has it served well as a "light-protector"
for the Carlyle Hotel in a city where property rights do not include
views, but also it has carried on the peaks and valleys of Madison
Avenue on the Upper East Side, which has helped make Saturday
strolls there one of the city's most enjoyable because of the
relative abundance of "light and air," the elusive intangible,
but measurable, quality that Manhattan has historically undervalued
by its emphasis on density and views.
What makes Manhattan special, something different
from suburbia, is its density, which contributes to its liveliness,
its energy and makes somewhat more possible its affordability,
is its "high-rise" nature. What would New York be without
its Lower Manhattan and Midtown and Central Park West skylines.
The Carlyle Hotel's high visibility over the
decades has resulted in large part from the fact that it has no
tall neighbors, one of the reasons that the Empire State Building,
until recently, has stood in splendid isolation on the skyline.
The Carlyle Hotel is a significant Art Deco-style skyscraper whose
architectural importance has managed not to be diminished too
much by the atrocious alterations of many of its windows.
Many of the applications that come before the
Landmarks Preservation Commission are for "rooftop additions,"
mostly on low- and mid-rise buildings, and the commission has
generally required that applicants erect "mock-ups"
for the commission to view from the street to see if the additions
are visually offensive/inappropriate and the commission has generally
insisted that such additions not be visible from the street, a
very limited and, shall we say, short-sighted perspective as the
addtions are often quite visible to a lot of people from inside
or atop other buildings or even from greater distances at street-level.
Recently, the commission has begun to show
some appreciation for modern design as opposed to its rather rigid
anti-modernist stance of the past. Indeed, it recently approved
a plan by Mr. Rosen to have Lord Foster design a slender mixed-use
tower immediately to the east of the Seagram Building. The approved
plan is considerably tower than the Seagram Building and replaces
a pleasant Renaissance-style mid-rise building at 610 Lexington
Avenue. The new tower, the commission noted, will not be visible
from directly across Park Avenue from the Seagram Building at
At the commission's hearing on the 980 Madison
Avenue plan, Lord Foster argued that the Upper East Side has a
history of important "radicalism," citing buildings
such as The Whitney Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum, arguing that "the tradition of change is the essence
of the Upper East Side," a statement that is a bit of a stretch.
William Kahn, a resident of the Carlyle House at 50 East 77th
Street, countered later in the hearing that "this is not
evolution, this is revolution," arguing that the plan is
Mr. Rosen and Mr. Foster could hardly be considered
"barbarians - they're usually quite well dressed, if not
For preservationists, furthermore, to try to
argue sometimes that nearby tall buildings should not be considered
part of a planned development's "context," a position
taken by the fervent Upper East Side preservations in the case
of a modest apartment building planned for 21 East 91st Street
(see The City Review article), is preposterous
and an insult to intelligence. So the preservationists' notion
that all views of the Carlyle Hotel should be sacrosanct is sheer
nonsense. The notion of "scenic easements" is intriguing
but literally where do you draw the line and is justice is to
be equal then everyone should pay and the Carlyle Hotel should
also pay for obstructing some vistas from some vantage points,
etc., ad nauseum.
A real sticking point, and probably the crux
of this matter, is the proposed 355-foot-high tower's flaunting
and bursting through the 210-foot-high maximum height restriction
of the Madison Avenue Special Preservation District, a completely
misguided part of that legislation.
Mr. Rosen's team did, dismissively, show the
commission what an "as-of-right" development on the
site preserving the existing structure would look like, as shown
in the above diagram. Such a plan, surprisingly, is not altogether
unattractive, but, of course, it would not be able to offer many
very spectacular, and therefore very costly, vistas for potential
It should be noticed that the placement of
the proposed tower at the north end of the site obviously was
done to preserve as much as possible of the views to the west
from the Carlyle Hotel, an incredibly neighborly gesture, but
one that is of little solace to the prospective condominium owners
of apartments that are understood to be planned in the Mark Hotel,
directly across 77th Street from the project.
The Community Board that represents the neighborhood
rejected the proposal in an advisory by a margin of 20 to 13.
Teri Slater, co-chair of Defenders
of the Historic Upper East Side with Elizabeth Ashley, read a
long statement in opposition to the project at the commission's
hearing, which was held in the Surrogate Court Building.
"Aby Rosen & RFR Holdings
LLC the applicant for this project, by virtue of hiring Foster
and Partners to design their building, seemingly intend to successfully
attempt to distract the Commissioners from their legally appointed
role. With the request today, the applicant desires to alter the
debate's focus from one of appropriate additions to the historic
district, to one of a discussion of the merits of this single
design by an internationally known architect. The approach is
clever, the design is not without merit. However, the Landmarks
Preseration Commissioners ought to be able to see through the
scheme. Indeed, the LPC should and must feel completed to dissect
the project into its component parts. Having done so, their only
rational option then, would be to reject the proposal. This application
represents the LPC with a highly significant turning point in
its formulation of policy: by pattern and precedent. The Commission
must take careful, measured consideration of the real changes
which are before it today. Those changes are not construction
related. They are changes to the legal procedure and the precedents
by which the LPC governs and functions. Indeed, the changes requested
today dwarf then this 'environmentlaly green,' oversized, ovoid,
glazed conceit of a project....Clearly, the former Sotheby's Building
helps to define the character of Madison Avenue in the mid-70s
blocks. It also serves as an extremely elegant punctuation mark
of scale, design detail and building finish at the very center
of this premier district in the city. The building is also utterly
complete as designed; it was never thought of, or designed to
serve, as the base for a tower. Of course, 980 Madison also responds
to and makes visible another highly significant landmark of the
Upper East Side Historic District, the Carlyle Hotel. Indeed,
980 Madison's low scale was determined by its neighbor across
the avenue, and the proposal heard today would do great violence
to the Carlyle's visibility and undeniable enhancement of the
historic district as seen not only from both Madison and Fifth
Avenues,...but also from Central Park and Central Park West.....Offsetting
the design to the north, which merely mimics the Carlyle's offset
to the south, can hardly diminish the view blocking bulk of the
project's 355 foot stature. Views to the Carylyle hotel from Fifth
Avenue, Central Park and Central Park west will be diminished
forever. To put this in perspective, the LPC normally views visibility
issues where a few feet of blocked views are called into question.
Here, the rooftop addition will be visible for miles, and the
views to be blocked are innumerable. Surely that must cause pause
for quiet reflection, and then rejection. Especially, whether
repairs contemplated are merely to a few windows, a decorative
cornice and rooftop garden. For, if the LPC were to allow this
RFR Holdings LLC effort to succeed - effectively to pass this
elephant through the eye of a needle - then the whole rationale
of defining scale as an integral ingredient of character in an
Historic District is 'up for grabs.' The 74-711 Rule would become
enshrined as the method by which the flout the normal procedures
and regulations of the LPC."
Adam Lindeman, a resident at
77 East 77th Street, told the commission that it would be "a
tragedy to turn down" the project" and Richard Meier,
the architect, submitted a statement said it would have "a
positive effect on the Upper East Side."
Ross Moskovitz, an attorney,
said that Carlyle House and 960 Fifth Avenue are opposed to the
project. "Call this an addition?" he asked rhetorically.
Artist Jeff Koons, an area resident, supported
the design as "very special" and complained of neighborhood
"segregation" based on architectural style.
"If you like modernism, don't live on
the Upper East Side," Mr. Koons said.
Peter Brandt, a newsprint magnate,
testified in favor of the project, stating that he "embraced"
it. Mort Ehrit described it as "a feather in a cap."
Does the city's need to have
new, modern architecture carry more merit than strict preservationism?
Is this design by Lord Norman
Foster a masterpiece?
Can this design be tweaked
sufficiently to pass muster with preservationists?
A few years ago, the city was
a backwater of contemporary architecture and virtually anything
new should have been heartily embraced as much of the rest of
the world was outshining New York City with spectacular new developments.
That situation has changed recently with three new and interesting
buildings now advancing designed by Frank O. Gehry, a beautiful
small project at 40 Bond Street by Herzog & de Meuron. The
general level of most new projects has improved dramatically even
when they are relatively conventional: sleek new glass apartment
towers and pleasant Post-Modern mid-rise apartment buildings are
sprouting up all over Manhattan and some new and rather garish
and far-from-perfect buildings, albeit with a lot of flair, are
rising in the outer boroughs. Overall, there is much to be encouraged
about, but not enough to be complacent.
This city, and others, always
needs great new architecture. Lord Norman Foster's projects are
not always beautiful, or apparently great, but they invariably
are very interesting and tend to push the envelope of technique
from the viewpoint of engineering and environmental concerns.
His projects are usually "surprising," and that is something
rare and important. It is very tempting, therefore, to say "let
him at it! and damn the torpedoes!" He is not, of course,
a god and it is foolhardy to throw caution to the winds, especially
since we want the Landmarks Preservation Commission to be cautious
and not take big risks with our spatial environment. At the same
time, while most people would love to hobnob with the owner of
the Seagram Building and the Lever House, Aby Rosen is not, of
course, a god and it would be silly to think that he, or Donald
Trump, or Jerry Speyer, are incapable of anything not utterly
sensational and wonderful. In the real world, of course, we cannot
expect the Landmarks commissioners to wear blinders. We want them
wide-eyed and able to recognize greatness from anyone.
The Foster design is very good
and interesting and would be a fine non-rectilinear addition to
the city and the Upper East Side, although the comment of one
opponent of the project at a community board meeting that it is
is better suited to Third Avenue than Madison Avenue is not without
It is interesting that the
proposal occurs at the same time as the splendid isolation of
the Empire State Building is being challenged by several nearby
residential towers of 40 to 60 stories or so and at the same time
that the New York Historical Society is reviving plans to build
an addition to its low-rise structure on Central Park West (see
Review article). The
latter project is particularly surprising because its tower is
offset to the south of the existing building and is a modern glass
tower as opposed to the brilliant PostModern addition planned
a generation ago for the society by Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer (see
The City Review article).
The Rosen/Foster proposal is
certainly not a slamdunk. The tower would be a fine addition to
New York even if it is not contextual and while those of us who
were spellbound by John Marion's wonderful auctioneering at Parke-Bernet
have great nostalgic fondness for the existing building, it is
not an especially important building architecturally. One can
have confidence that Mr. Rosen would produce a tasteful kunsthalle
and sculpture garden, but they are not facilities that are desperately
needed on the Upper East Side, though welcome.
Perhaps part of the problem
is that the proposal is almost too serious. Perhaps Mr. Rosen
might ask Mr. Koons for a small, stainless steel Puppy (see a
photograph of a giant green puppy by Mr. Koons that was exhibited
at Rockefeller Center that is illustrated in The City Review article on Rockefeller Center) to put atop the tower.
The as-of-right development
of the building's unused air-rights would not be unattractive,
but its lack of major views would make it economically unattractive
given the high purchase price of the building.
Waffling aside, the plan, while
not sensational, would be exciting and would become a modern landmark
on the Upper East Side, which has few of them.
The proposal was not accepted
as "appropriate" by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
A revised design by Norman
Foster for a planned addition to 980 Madison Avenue was published
in a May 14, 2008 article by Nicolai Ouroussoff in The New
A previous design was not
accepted by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in January,
2007. That design would have added a reflective-glass, curbed
tower at the north end of the roof of the low-rise, limestone-clad
building that occupies the avenue blockfront on the west side
between 76th and 77th Streets across from the Carlyle Hotel and
directly south of the former Mark Hotel that is being renovated
and partially converted to condominium apartments.
The new design is substantially
shorter than the prior design's tower and it fully covers the
roof of the existing building. The prior design would have created
a large sculpture garden on most of the low-rise building's roof.
The new design is clad in
bronze-colored glass and has a slight indentation just above the
existing structure that makes it appear, to a certain extent,
to be floating, a design effect used to great affect at the former
C.I.T. Building at 650 Madison Avenue.
Mr. Ouroussoff, who is the
architecture critic of The New York Times, wrote that "You
have to pity any architect who appears before the landmarks committee
of the Upper East Side's community board. Packed with amateur
preservationists, it is notoriously adverse to anything new."
"The group," he added, "seems as open to the notion
that cities can change as some biblical fundamentalists are to
Describing the new design,
he noted that "Clad in elegant bronze bands, its low blocky
form would rest directly on the existing structure, echoing its
exact proportions." "The new design," he continued,
"is more polite and less original, hewing to the reactionary
view that most contemporary architecture is best when it is invisible.
Little wonder that this neighborhood has not gained a significant
new work of architecture in more than a quarter-century."
According to Mr. Ouroussoff,
"The bands, modeled on an earlier Foster design for an apartment
complex in an Alpine resort, are conceived as delicate movable
screens, reflecting the good taste of the inhabitants while protecting
them from the unwanted gaze of outsiders." The new design,
he continued is "a calculated response to the bottom-line
politics of building on the Upper East Side. The building's low
profile and bronzed exterior, while no more contextual than a
glass tower, seem well mannered if complacent."
Aby Rosen is the developer
of the project and is the owner of such major landmarks as the
Seagram Building and Lever House, both on Park Avenue.
The previous design proposed
a 22-story addition with only 18 condominium apartments atop the
former Parke-Bernet Gallery Building that was erected in 1950
and altered substantially about two decades ago. Parke-Bernet
was the auction house that was subsequently acquired by Sotheby's.
Foster's former design for
the apartment tower would have been a joined bundle of two glass-clad
towers of unequal height and with curved facades occupying only
23 percent of the roof. It would have blocked numerous view to
the south from the Mark Hotel but would have preserved a lot of
"light and air" for the Carlyle Hotel and Madison Avenue.
Mr. Foster had argued previously
that a vertical addition was more appropriate than "heavy
layering" of a horizontal addition.
The plan has to be resubmitted
to the Landmarks Preservation Commission because the property
falls within an historic district.
On May 12, 2008, the Department
of Buildings assigned an alteration application about the building
by Ambrosino Depinto & Schmieder to a plan examiner and the
application described was for a 14-story "business"
building with no dwelling units.