News
11.11.2009
Scrapped!
New York landmarks commission saves one Auto Row building, junks another
The corner of Broadway and West 57th Street, where the Shaw buildings flank the masonry building at center. They are part of a future project by Extell Development.
Courtesy Google Earth

Typically, preservationists would have been thrilled by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s last-minute designation of 1780 Broadway, a 12-story, early modern building designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw and built in 1909 for tire makerB.F. Goodrich. It is one of just two buildings designed by the prolific Chicago School architect in New York, and it became a city landmark yesterday despite the reservations of Extell Development, which owns the property and intends to make it part of a $1.5 billion mixed-use project.


 
 
1780 Broadway and 225 West 57th Street. (Click to enlarge)
 
COURTESY LPC
 
 

But the commission, by a vote of 6-3, also decided to cast aside Shaw’s other New York building, the adjoining 225 West 57th Street. Commission chair Robert Tierney said that among his reasons was the opposition of Extell and the city council, which wrote a strongly worded letter [PDF] in August that effectively threatened to overturn the commission’s designation if it went ahead with it. The result has left preservationists apoplectic.

“I’m appalled,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. “I think this inserts a level of politics into a merit-based decision. It’s the job of the landmarks commission to appropriately weigh the merits of these buildings. If the city council wants to kill it, fine, but don’t do their dirty work.”

Christabel Gough, secretary for the Society for the Architecture of the City, was more forgiving of the commission, given the pressure placed on it. “It’s very unfortunate the council substitute its judgment while accommodating a major developer,” she said.

In debating which buildings to preserve, a majority of commissioners argued that 1780 Broadway was a sufficient memorial to B.F. Goodrich’s place along Automobile Row, a succession of midrise office and service buildings that predominated around the turn of the century along Broadway north of 42nd Street.

Preservationists in the audience snickered and groaned at the suggestion that no automotive buildings were built on side streets—there is even one such landmark across the street on 57th Street—but the commission seemed to buy the argument made in August by Extell’s preservation consultant, Higgins & Quasebarth, that because the eight-story building at 225 West 57th was built on spec and never occupied by the carmaker, it was unworthy of preservation.

“In my judgment, 225 West 57th Street did not play as prominent a role in Automobile Row,” Tierney said. “Therefore, it is less deserving of designation, especially in light of the other buildings already landmarked.”

But some commissioners argued that despite this history, 225 West 57th was actually the more significant of the two buildings, being one of the first in the city in which a truly modernist vocabulary began to emerge. “As a work of architecture, it is an extremely strong, extremely rare, and extremely precious example of early modernism,” commissioner Stephen Byrns said. “While it doesn’t share the history with Automobile Row, the details are of a kind rarely seen in New York.”

Among the features Bryns singled out was the building’s distinctive fenestration, abstracted columns, and the incorporation of automotive motifs, such as tire-tread bricks and wing nut sculptures. Meanwhile, he derided 1780 Broadway as impressive but a far more typical example of Chicago School and Vienna Secession architecture.

“1780 Broadway is typical of the era,” Bankoff said. “225 West 57th is not. Maybe if it had been built in the ‘20s, but it is very advanced for 1909.”

Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz argued that the two buildings, which are of the similar proportions and construction and connected by a freight elevator in the rear, are inseparable. “I find the 57th Street building more distinctive, and to separate the two would be like separating siblings,” she said. She added that is would be hard to appreciate the Broadway building without its neighbor.

After the vote, Raizy Haas, a senior vice president for development at Extell, said the firm had looked at preserving both buildings. They would be part of a T-shaped development stretching from 57th Street to 58th Street with a spur on Broadway occupied by the B.F. Goodrich Building. But because of differing floor heights in the two buildings and other issues, 225 West 57th could not be saved.

Plans have not been drawn up and a designer has yet to be announced, though Haas said Extell was “absolutely” considering someone on par with its recent collaborators, which include Christian de Portzamparc and SOM.

Matt Chaban