By Carter B. Horsley
This 26-story apartment tower was erected as
a cooperative in 1966 on the site of a chateau-like mansion that
had been erected by Isaac Brokaw in 1887.
The controversial demolition of the Brokaw
mansion, which was nicely complemented by the elaborate townhouse
designed by C.P.H. Gilbert for Isaac Fletcher and occupied for
many years by Augustus Van Horn Stuyvesant, directly across 79th
Street that now houses the Ukrainian Institute of America, was
a factor in the citys creation of a landmarks preservation
law as it happened about the same time as the demolition of the
former Pennsylvania Station in midtown and aroused the public
to the loss of important architectural monuments.
Because of the notoriety associated with the
demolition of the Brokaw mansion, this tower has not been popular
in many architectural circles.
It is, however, quite handsome and one of the
better apartment towers to have been erected in the city after
World War II.
Its dark, grayish brown brick facade would
be somber if it were not enlivened by the slightly projecting
limestone window bays, one on each of its facades. The composition
gives the tower a strong sense of verticality, accentuating its
already dramatic break with the traditional 15-story cornice line
of the avenues apartment houses.
Although 825 Fifth Avenue several blocks to
the south was significantly higher than its neighbors, it was
stylistically contextual whereas this towers modernity and
minimalism was in sharp contrast to its neighbors. Furthermore,
this tower achieved its height by providing a plaza that enabled
it to use a zoning "bonus." The creation of a plaza
on a broad cross-street such as 79th Street, to say nothing of
being directly across from Central Park, is, and was, superfluous
and unnecessary and disruptive of the areas traditional
street grid. Subsequently, the city would change its zoning and
create an historic district to prevent such incongruities along
much of the avenues frontage on the park.
The plaza and the buildings height, understandably
shattered much of the elegant ambiance of the avenue just as Plaza
900 and 733 Park Avenue would soon do on Park Avenue. These projects
significantly altered, for the worse, the consistent ambiance
of both avenues and, indeed, the heart of the Upper East Side.
This is the best of the lot as it is well-proportioned with very
handsome, large picture windows with thin and attractive limestone
reveals, a dramatic entrance and a large, nicely landscaped plaza
with large planters with seating areas. Were this tower located
east of Park Avenue, it would be praised as one of the nicest
in the city.
Interestingly, another, very similar tower
- 985 Fifth Avenue - quickly adjoined it just to the north on
the avenue and at first glance both buildings read as one because
the second buildings driveway adjoins 980s plaza and
both buildings are setback from the avenue. Paul Resnick and H.
F. Green were the architects of 980 Fifth Avenue and Wechsler
& Schimenti were the architects of 985 Fifth Avenue, which
also rose on the site of a former Brokaw mansion.
In his fine small book, "Touring the Upper
East Side, Walks in Five Historic Districts," (New York Landmarks
Conservancy, 1995), Andrew S. Dolkart remarked that "these
two apartment buildings are not only excruciatingly banal works
of architecture, but they rudely break the plane of the Fifth
Avenue street wall." "They replaced six townhouses,
including four erected for clothier Isaac Brokaw and his children
that were demolished, despite pleas for their preservation, in
February, 1965....The ensuing New York Times editorial,
entitled "Rape of the Brokaw Mansion," decried the weekend
stealth...[of] the despoilers who demolished these buildings
and noted that if the city did not pass pending landmarks legislation
there would be no landmarks left to save. This outcry influenced
Mayor Robert Wagners, decision, two months later, to sign
the law creating the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission,"
The Brokaw houses were impressive but not important
examples of the turn-of-the-century urban mansion, and some might
argue that these two towers should not be slighted since they
were instrumental in getting the city to enact a landmarks law,
even if it was decades late. Of course, ideally all the mansions
along the avenue should probably have been saved and the elegant
tall apartment buildings erected along Madison Avenue, but that
should have been an earlier battle.
In his excellent book, "New Yorks
Fabulous Luxury Apartments With Original Floor Plans from The
Dakota, River House, Olympic tower and Other Great Buildings,"
(Dover Publications, Inc., 1987), Andrew Alpern noted that 980
Fifth Avenue "offers large and expensive accommodations,
the biggest being a 16-room duplex penthouse which originally
cost $418,000." "Many of the original details used throughout
the building - gold-plated bathroom fixtures, bidets, domed ceilings
- were removed by some of the 43 owner-occupants. The large number
of changes suggests a stern re-evaluation of what people of means
want in their apartments," he continued.
The building, which now has 45 apartments,
has spectacular views to the west and the south and has a garage
and a driveway. It no longer is such a standout on the Upper East
Side skyline and its plaza is very pleasant.
It is interesting to note that 985 Fifth Avenue
is "in context" with 980 Fifth Avenue and visually the
two abutting towers are often mistaken as one, albeit a rather
complex mass. The two towers really do complement one another
and mitigate somewhat the harsh criticisms against them individually.