PoMo's Golden Boy

Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building clears first hurdle in landmarking process

East News Preservation Skyscrapers
Philip Johnson's AT&T Building clears first hurdle in landmarking process. The current state of 550 Madison and Snøhetta's proposed redesign. (Courtesy Snøhetta)
Philip Johnson's AT&T Building clears first hurdle in landmarking process. The current state of 550 Madison and Snøhetta's proposed redesign. (Courtesy Snøhetta)

Following a recommendation from research staff, New York City’s Landmarks and Preservation Commission (LPC) has unanimously voted to put Philip Johnson’s contentious AT&T Building on the path towards becoming a protected landmark. The calendaring approved today, the first formal step in the designation process, is a promising sign, although 550 Madison Avenue must now face a public hearing sometime in the next few months and further deliberations from the commission before a full vote.

The landmarking initiative was given a jumpstart this month after Snøhetta unveiled their plans to strip the 110-foot tall granite archway at the base of the tower and re-clad it with an undulating glass façade. The reaction was swift, with architects and critics from around the world weighing in both for and against the redevelopment, and eventually a protest broke out in front of the building on November 3rd.

Commissioners at the Monday meeting took their time after the presentation to deliberate on the unique factors that they would need to take into consideration before making a decision. If landmarked, Johnson’s tower, completed in 1984, would beat out the former Citicorp Building at 601 Lexington Avenue to become the youngest landmarked building in the city. Citing the AT&T Building’s size, prominent Midtown location, impact on the history of postmodernism, and Johnson’s legacy as the first winner of the Pritzker Prize, commissioners spoke of the building’s importance to the history of New York City.

Photo of the original AT&T Building lobby with the “Golden Boy” statue, from the 1982 Time Magazine profile of Johnson. (Courtesy Wolfgang Hoyt)

Mentioning the heavy media attention that the building has received lately, in addition to the looming renovation, the commissioners acknowledged that with the history of unauthorized changes and the proposed renovation, the tower is “in play” and that this was an opportunity they likely wouldn’t have another chance at. An interior landmarking of the building’s lobby was also discussed but was ultimately dismissed, as there had been too much deviation from Johnson’s original design. The tower’s original base had allocated open, publicly accessible arcades and a lobby designed specifically to house the “Golden Boy” statue for AT&T, all of which was scrapped when Sony began making changes in 1992.

David Laurie, Managing Director at Chelsfield America, a development partner for the 550 Madison Avenue renovation, reached out to AN with the following statement.

We support the calendaring decision by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect the special architectural aspects of 550 Madison Avenue, which we are as committed to as ever following our conversations with community stakeholders.

“We are committed to creating a rejuvenated 550 Madison that retains its important presence, works for future tenants, and realizes long-promised public amenities to the larger Midtown community. And we look forward to further collaborating with the LPC to make that happen.”

With the AT&T Building now potentially on its way towards reaching protected status, it remains to be seen how much of developer Olayan America and Snøhetta’s current scheme will actually be implemented. AN will be following this story as it develops.

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