By Carter B. Horsley
It is exceeding rare for competing developers
to coordinate their building plans and produce projects that are
mutually complimentary, if not beneficial. It is even rarer for
such developments to have significant benefit for the city.
This is such an example. The coordination,
however, did not come easily and was negotiated by New York State
Supreme Court Justice Edward J. Greenfield.
In 1984, Donald Trump built this very glossy
but attractive 39-story, 175-unit cooperative apartment tower
with a low-rise retail base that extended the full-blockfront
on the avenue to 62nd Street.
Lo and behold, two years later in 1986 Morton
L. Olshan and his partners began building a 42-story, 234-unit
condominium, catty-corner clone, called the Savoy (see The
City Review article)!
Mr. Trump, ever vigilant, filed a law suit
against Olshan to make sure the project was different from his
and the case was settled out of court after the judge dictated
specific changes in the façade materials of Mr. Olshan's
The Olshan version is slightly different with
a shinier base and more angled balconies, but from a distance
these towers could almost be twins. More important, together they
serve as a major gateway to the Upper East Side from the very
hectic and important entrance and exit to the Queensborough Bridge
Philip Birnbaum & Associates designed both
buildings and Paul Goldberger noted in a column in The New
York Times that Trump Plaza "could not be called distinguished,
but it surely glitters amid the banality of the rest of Third
"Whose property was that building's design?"
Goldberger asked. Normally, he continued, it belongs to the architect
to prevent builders from re-using designs without permission.
Justice Greenfield, Goldberger reported, noted that Birnbaum's
contract with Trump provided that the architect not use the drawings
for another project and maintained that "a knockoff of a
known product is unfair competition." Goldberger remarked
that the settlement in the case "sets an important precedent,
for it is based on the premise that the design of a building is
protected not only by copyright but also by the laws and customs
of the commercial marketplace."
"Twin buildings would not have helped
Mr. Trump's marketing effort much, for they would have made Trump
Plaza less of a special product. But they would have been reasonable
urban design in a city in desperate need of more coherence on
its streetscape. On the other hand, Mr. Birnbaum's record of concern
for the streetscape is not a good one, and it is hard not to think
that at Trump Plaza he had simply been pushed into doing something
different from his usual work, knew that he had a winner in that
design and wanted to duplicate his success. In the end, this case
was less about architecture than it was about marketing - which
might, of course, be said about the whole business of real estate
in the first place. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Olshan issued press
releases hat suggested they had prevailed in the settlement, a
probable sign of the Justice's wisdom," Goldberger wrote.
Which three-winged tower is better is hard
to decide. The Savoy, which is on the south side of 61st Street,
has a flashier and more attractive base with a brightly colored,
trellised sundeck on its setback, while Trump's tower, which is
on the north side of 61st Street, has a form that is a bit more
soothing and a bit further removed from the area's hubbub and
a bit closer to Central Park.
By contemporary standards, both were far above
the norm, although they both have disappointing low ceilings despite
the regular roundup of amenities such as health club, concierge,
garage and sundeck.
The trefoil layout of each tower, of course,
is the real winner, opening up unusual vistas and angles for both
residents and passersby.
The retail base of the building has a high
curved glass second floor above two brass string courses. It is
an impressive unified retail frontage. The southernmost store
for many years was occupied by a handsome and very popular restaurant
but the space remained vacant for some time in 2003 and 2004.