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275 West 96th Street

The Columbia seen from the southeast

The Columbia seen from the southeast

By Carter B. Horsley

This handsome, 35-story condominium was a major pioneer in the redevelopment of Broadway north of 86th Street. Not surprisingly, it was developed by William Zeckendorf Jr., and partners, who also pioneered the redevelopment of Union Square with Zeckendorf Towers and Eighth Avenue with the World Wide Plaza complex.

The Columbia, which was designed by Liebman Williams Ellis Architects, is one of the Upper West Side's tallest buildings as well as one of its most sculpturally massed. Its solid balconies are staggered or alternated to create a very vigorous fašade. It is interesting that the architects also set the main tower back from Broadway to minimize its visual impact on that street's cornice line. The base of the building extends fully to Broadway and the top of the base contains a health club and pool. The building has a garage and a sun deck.

Building in 1983, the light-colored building has 300 units and many boast dramatic views, regardless of the direction.

community garden at rear of the building

Nice community garden at rear of the building

At the time of its construction, the area had fallen on relatively bad times and this was the first major private investment. For a while, the site had been considered by a department store for a major satellite operation.

In his excellent book, "On Broadway, A Journey Over Time" (Rizzoli, 1990), David W. Dunlap, a reporter for The New York Times, noted:

"In spite of its rebounding commercial life, Broadway as a physical entity remained frozen in its pre-Depression state through the 1970's. It was a measure of local stasis that the blockfront at Ninety-sixth Street stood largely vacant, except for a community garden, for fifteen years after the Riveria and Riverside theaters were razed in 1976. Finally, in 1981, after several false starts by other developers, William Zeckendorf Jr., began a huge condominium apartment tower called the Columbia. This project has been credited - and blamed - for triggering the wave of luxury high-rise construction in the mid-1980s."

Indeed, in 1984 the city enacted new zoning for Broadway on the Upper West Side to encourage contextual architecture.

The name of the building is probably a reference to the famous university of the same name about a mile north on Broadway.

"This towering hulk is the earliest adventure in sophisticated modern housing on the Upper West Side. A bit brash, it evokes the cubistic dreams of Walter Gropius in his wonderful but losing scheme for the Chicago Tribune Tower," observed Elliot Willensky and Norval White in their excellent book, "The A.I.A. Guide to New York City, Third Edition," (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988).

"What is refreshing here is that the terms of apartment development - pack the site, create units with balconies and views, do it at low cost - are met head-on, unflinchingly, in a neo-Bauhaus design that eschews fashionable contextualism and does not try pretentiously to conceal its inherent tawdriness. What a breath of fresh air!" exclaimed Francis Morrone in his book, "The Architectural Guide to new York City," (a Peregrine Smith Book, published by Gibbs Smith, Publishers, Layton, Utah, 1994).

In 1974, Christopher Boomis had proposed a 34-story apartment building for the site but nothing happened until Chemical Bank foreclosed in 1976 on the Riverside-Riveria theaters that had been erected in 1913.

In 1977, the Starrett Housing Corporation acquired the site and two years later indicated that 20 percent of its planned apartments would be for low-income residents, an announcement that did not win support in the community at the time. Starrett began to revise its plans while community activists created a community garden on the site and in 1982 William Zeckendorf Jr. took over the site.

The building has 35,000 square feet of commercial space, a 16,000-square foot health club and a 7,000-square-foot community garden on the roof of the building's garage on 97th Street.

For more information about the Columbia check its entry at

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