When Aby Rosen and Norman Foster first proposed an addition to the Parke-Bernet Building at 980 Madison Avenue, the result was a 22-story tower that was beloved by the architectural cognoscenti and the developer’s boldface friends, and hated by just about everybody else, including residents of the Carlyle Hotel across the street and, most importantly, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which first turned down the proposal in January 2007.
A year and a half later, Foster returned with a vastly different proposal, swapping the rounded glass tower for a five-story, bronze-clad box nearly the exact proportions of the building beneath. Versions of that plan were defeated on two separate occasions because the commission found them too domineering over the original. Today, after the further elimination of one story and certain important cosmetic changes that give the addition a lighter feel, the commission finally approved the project, voting in favor 7-1.
“This is vastly improved, strikingly contemporary,” commission chair Robert Tierney said. “Together you’ll see them as separate but also part of an ensemble.”
Not only did the designers reduce the height of the overall structure to nine stories from 10, but it cost them 20,000 square feet, for a total of 123,000 square feet. And while the height of the building has been lowered 9 feet, the street wall has been reduced further, by 4 feet, because a glass railing surrounding the penthouse terrace has been set back two feet and will no longer be visible from the street.
Additional changes have also been made to the aluminum scrim that encases the building. The color of the anodized aluminum rods has now been darkened to a “mid-tone” bronze. Originally, it was “terra cotta” bronze, before being lightened last July to “champagne,” which was meant to be closer to the limestone below. Now, it falls somewhere in the middle.
To lighten the appearance of the building and its massing, the space between the aluminum rods has been doubled, and the glass facade behind them has been pushed back from 2 feet to 4 feet. The idea is to make the glassy inner facade more visible, with more air between them, and thus a lighter composition, an approach that won the new design wide support from the commission.
Finally, the corners of the addition have been rounded off, a nod to the original building’s rounded corners. The developer also reiterated his commitment to fully restore the Parke-Bernet Building, which suffered an ungainly fifth-story addition decades ago. Rosen will replace the original fourth-floor roofline and transform the fifth back into a tree-lined terrace.
Commissioner Margery Perlmutter, who has been one of the few in favor of the addition for some time, said she appreciated the changes all the same. “They clarified the distinction of the original building, which is opaque and heavy and stone, and the addition, which is now light and airy,” Perlmutter said. “It creates much more transparency, making the building all the lighter.”
Roberta Brandes Gratz, the lone dissenting vote, acknowledged that the designs were not bad, but said that nothing as large as the Parke-Bernet Building should be built atop it. “There were features I liked,” she said. “If at the proper scale, and set back considerably, I could have found it appropriate. But this was much too massive.”
Tierney took the opposite tack, noting that the building had been scaled down considerably over time, and praising the collaboration between the commission and the developer in getting it to that point. “It’s a very close question that requires discretion and judgment,” he said. “That’s why I think the process here is so important.”
Rosen also praised the process in a statement, despite the three years it took for his project to receive approval. “I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate that you can build with distinction in an historic district if you respond responsibly and work collaboratively with the landmarks commission,” he said. “The commissioners’ vote today demonstrates their confidence that our dedication to architectural integrity and the highest quality of materials will produce an exemplary result for the neighborhood and for the city.”
As for preservationists, feelings were mixed on the final results, but they too seemed happy the process was finally over. “Aby Rosen was determined to build on this building,” said Nadezhda Williams, a preservation associate at the Historic Districts Council. “At least it’s not as bad as before.”